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Foliate Oak February 2018
Two Arms and a Leg
By Jeff Bakkensen
We split her up by dropping names into a hat. I got both arms, Paul a leg, Ryan the head, Matt the other leg, and Drew the coveted torso. Then we split for our various cities, Paul and I to New York, Matt to LA, Ryan to Boston, and Drew to London. We texted frequently, sent each other pictures of ourselves with our parts at home or out at a bar. When Paul and I met up for drinks we usually found our way to the center of attention, two arms and a leg splayed across the table in front of us.
“What’s that?” people asked, and we took turns telling the story.
We’d found her during one of those ecstatically clear morning sessions when the air is crisp and the sun is bright and the skin of the world stretches on and on and on. She was shoved behind a urinal beneath the football stadium, homecoming sophomore year. Drew saw her first and called us over. Or maybe it was Ryan. Life-sized, fully articulated, burnished a deep reddish brown.
Matt said she was bad luck and we should burn her. Instead we brought her back up into the stands and poured drinks over her shapeless mouth.
“What’s that?” people asked.
“That’s my girlfriend,” said Drew. “She’s visiting.”
“No that’s my girlfriend,” said Ryan. “And she’s visiting me.”
That night, we brought her back to the house and outfitted her with a letter hoodie and basketball shorts. Our Recruitment Officer agreed to waive the pledging process and from then on, she was party to all house activities. She spent afternoons with us on one of the common room couches. She came outside to watch while we played cornhole on the lawn. In the summer she waited patiently while we went home to work as painters or interns, each of us holding our breath until we saw her again in the fall.
The day before graduation, we gathered in the backyard and went about taking her apart. We laid her out on the grass. I held her arm. Drew pressed both hands against her torso. Ryan had an axe from someone he knew at the Office of Physical Plant.
As usual, we’d been drinking.
Ryan raised the axe above his head and swung it at the pin that formed her shoulder. My hands vibrated, and suddenly I was holding a dismembered arm. I watched while Ryan hacked off the other arm, both legs, and finally her head. We went inside with tears in our eyes.
Then we separated.
Before too long it seemed like we’d forgotten how to talk about her. Ryan came to visit from Boston and, sitting together in my apartment, we struggled like the children of immigrants working through the mother tongue.
“And you still have the,” I asked. “The, you have a leg?”
“The head,” said Ryan. “And the two of you. You have arms?”
“Arms and a leg,” said Paul, and we shared a reassuring look.
The next fall, Matt started journalism school and joined us in New York. Paul and I helped him unpack his things, racing with excitement as we sliced open boxes. But the leg wasn’t there.
“Where’s the leg?” I asked, and Matt gave us a sheepish look.
He made a show of searching, but we both knew there was only one explanation; at some point he’d finally given in to temptation and burned it.
Drew got engaged to a girl from Spain who was in London for grad school, and he asked us all to be groomsmen. We rented a house in Madrid. We exulted. We were back together, undistributed.
The night before the wedding, we went out in Maravillas, stumbling from calle to calle until we were red from liquor and smoke. Back at the house, Drew went into his bag and came out with the torso. He turned to Matt.
“I want you to have it,” he said.
We were in awe. We felt affirmed.
Matt took the torso in his trembling arms and hugged it close as we laid our hands on breasts, on hips. We all went to our bags and removed our arms, the remaining leg, the head, and laid her on the floor.
The torso was already missing when Matt and I got dinner a few months later. Matt said there’d been a break-in, but I’m pretty sure he burned it, too.
I met Cara through a mutual friend. I waited for our second date to tell her about the arms.
“It’s kind of strange,” I said, “but they’re really important to me. And I need you to understand that.”
But she did! And after our next date she asked tentatively, politely, if she could see them. I brought her home and carefully lifted the arms from their hiding place in the back of my closet. I took one and I gave her the other. We could hear my roommates watching TV in the other room.
“These are beautiful,” she said.
I said that yes, they were the most beautiful arms I’d ever seen. I took my arm in both hands and raised it above her head and lowered it down behind her, pulling her close.
We got married and moved to Connecticut. The night before the wedding, Cara joined the five of us as we laid the arms, the head, and one leg on the floor. We imagined the torso and the other leg. We told each other she was still beautiful.
We had our first daughter not long after. Then we had our second. We moved to an old farmhouse farther outside the city.
We keep in touch, the five of us. We text; we talk at weddings. Cara will post a picture of our family on vacation, and they'll all add comments. But sometimes I wonder why they never ask about the arms, if I ever climb up to the attic and take them out, skinned with mold and rough spots, and remember the day we found her, how it seemed she'd been left there just for us. Then again, more important things have happened to us since.
Jeff Bakkensen lives in Boston. Recent work has appeared in A-Minor Magazine, Oblong Magazine, Smokelong Quarterly, and The Antigonish Review
* * *
The Perils of Going to Work
By Pamela Bloomfield
You’re waiting at the front door of a tidy, gray-shingled Cape at the end of a winding, wooded lane. The drive from your vacation rental took only fifteen minutes, and would have taken even less time if not for the chilly fog rolling in off the ocean and blurring the view out your windshield.
But in fact it’s taken you almost four decades to reach the doorstep of Raymond Borden, the first and worst boss you ever had. The man whose threats and sarcasm and blistering critiques of your work transformed you from an eager, confident woman embarking on an exciting market research career to an anxiety-ridden temp worker. You and Sarah and Peggy and Ben called him “the Warden” behind his back, hoping to diffuse his power with mockery. But it didn’t work. Nothing worked.
The door swings open. You’re surprised to see a small girl with pale, stick-straight hair on the other side of the threshold. Her severe, blue-eyed stare is so eerily familiar that for a brief, insane moment you entertain the possibility that the Warden has died and been reincarnated into the person of a little girl.
“Hi there!” You overcompensate with a huge, phony smile, which she does not return. “So, my name is Jane, and I’m here to see Mr. Borden. What’s your name?”
She turns away. “Grammy!”
Back then, after ten-hour days at the office, the four of you speculated endlessly about the Warden’s wife as you huddled together swilling down vodka tonics at the Alibi, a seedy bar where you were guaranteed not to run into any of the managers from work. The Warden was in good physical condition and, you all agreed, not that bad-looking for forty-five, although his blond crewcut and drab suits made him look like a time traveler from some previous, more conservative decade. But how could any woman tolerate a marriage to such a callous, vindictive human being?
A smiling woman with skin like wrinkled parchment and a neat cap of gray hair is reaching out a hand to you. She’s wearing loose blue jeans and a pale blue sweatshirt embellished with an embroidered sailboat and the words “I’d Rather Be Sailing” in flowing script. “You must be Jane! Come in, come in!”
“Thank you, Mrs. Borden.” You grasp her hand, which is much warmer than yours. Your hands are always cold when you’re nervous.
“Oh, dear, call me Corinne. Everyone does, except for my little granddaughter here –” She reaches out to hug the little girl. “What do you call me, Amanda?”
The little girl beams and wraps her arms around Corinne’s leg. “Grammy!”
“Amanda’s parents are taking a well-earned vacation, so she’s staying with us for a little while,” Corinne explains.
“You have a lovely home,” you say dutifully, glancing around.
“Well, that’s very sweet of you to say,” Corinne replies. “We bought this place years ago knowing we wanted to live out our golden years near the ocean, and we’ve been happy as clams here ever since Ray retired. Now, Amanda dear, I want you to go and tell Grampy that his guest has arrived, and we’ll be joining him in the living room in just a minute.”
Amanda scampers off, leaving you and Corinne standing there. You can smell her lavender scent and something else: the hot, sweet aroma of something baking. It makes no sense that this pleasant, friendly woman is married to the Warden.
“I just wanted to have a word with you before you talk to Ray,” Corinne says in a hushed tone.
“Sure,” you say. Does she know why you’ve come? Does he?
“Well,” she says. “You know Ray is eighty-five, and over the past few years he’s slowed down quite a bit. His memory just isn’t what it once was. In fact, I’m not sure he quite remembers who you are.”
“I see,” you say. This doesn’t come as a total surprise. He’d sounded bewildered when you called him from the rental cottage.
“What did you say your name was?” His high-pitched, querulous voice had shocked you.
You’d repeated your name and the dates that you’d worked for him back in the nineteen-seventies. You’d said, truthfully enough, that you and your husband were vacationing nearby and that you’d welcome the opportunity to say hello to your first post-college boss. And the Warden had replied that, certainly, by all means, you were welcome to stop by the house for a cup of coffee.
Since then you’ve been flooded with memories. Laboring over your research memoranda, only to have them returned to you with the Warden’s notorious red pen slashes and question marks and comments, which were always printed in capital letters. WEAK. GARBLED. THIS WORK IS UNACCEPTABLE. Hearing Sarah sobbing in one of the ladies’ room stalls. Calling an ambulance the day Peggy took one too many Valiums and collapsed on her way to the copy machine. Worrying about Ben’s increasingly listless demeanor as he received one rejection after another from positions for which he was more than qualified, until finally a sympathetic hiring manager explained that the Warden had declined to recommend Ben for the position.
The Warden had made you all so miserable. And all you want from him is the answer to a simple question: why?
Corinne leads you into a carpeted living room where a gaunt man with wispy white hair sits slumped in an oversized armchair.
“Ray? Jane is here. I’m just going to pop those cookies out of the oven, and I’ll be back with some refreshments.”
The man struggles to his feet, eyeing you with curiosity but no glimmer of recognition. He’s wearing old-man clothes: a shapeless plaid shirt, baggy corduroy slacks, and brown Hush Puppies.
Of course you’d expected him to have aged after forty years. But you would not recognize this man if you passed him on the street. Only the light blue eyes are familiar, although they’re masked by the crepey folds of his eyelids, and they’ve lost that fierce intensity you remember so well.
“Hello, Mr. Borden,” you say. “It’s been a long time.”
He reaches out a trembling hand. “Nice to see you again, Jane.” That same querulous voice from the phone call.
You settle yourself in a matching armchair facing the Warden, and Corinne brings in a tray of coffee and chocolate chip cookies. After serving each of you a cup of coffee and a cookie, Corinne excuses herself to take Amanda for a walk. You’re finally alone with the Warden.
“Well, then,” he says. “Why don’t you tell me a bit about what you’ve been doing since we last saw each other.”
You skip the part about resigning from the company and wobbling from one temp job to the next without a plan or purpose, too terrified of a bad reference from the Warden to apply anywhere for a professional position. You might have spent your entire career as a temp if Josh, your software engineer friend from high school, had not recommended you to one of his buddies at a high-tech start-up. Josh’s buddy didn’t bother to ask the Warden for a reference. Instead, fortunately for you, he read your writing samples and took a chance on you.
You tell the Warden that you’ve enjoyed the challenge of writing technical manuals and training new writers as your company has grown and diversified, that the work has been professionally and financially rewarding. You add that you’re married to a wonderful man and that you have two grown daughters. All of these things are true.
“Well, then,” he says politely. “It sounds as though things have worked out quite well for you.”
“They have,” you reply. “But – ”
For a moment you’re tempted to abandon your confrontation plan and simply take your leave. But then you think back to the sobbing – not only Sarah’s sobbing in the ladies’ room, but also your own sobbing, night after night, lying face down on your bed until the patterned Indian bedspread was soaked with tears. At first your roommates rushed in to comfort you, but eventually they gave up. Like the exhausted parents of a colicky baby, they left you alone to cry yourself to sleep.
“I want to ask you a question,” you say carefully.
You take a deep breath, and then you launch into the monologue you’ve been rehearsing in your mind for so many years. With the brisk efficiency befitting an experienced writer of software manuals, you tick off the many ways in which he belittled and intimidated you and your colleagues. You explain the impact of his behavior on you and the others: the fearfulness, the sleeplessness, the self-loathing and despair.
As you speak, his frown deepens. “Surely not everyone felt this way.”
You hesitate. Well, no, not everyone. There was Vicky, whom the Warden singled out for praise and special assignments. Perhaps she was a bit more professional, a bit more competent, a bit savvier than the rest of you. But she was also a loathsome snitch who regularly reported back to the Warden on the rest of you: the exact times that each of you arrived in the morning and left in the evening, the number of coffee breaks that each of you took and with whom you took them, even the topics of your jokes. You all soon learned not to speak, or even roll your eyes, in the presence of Vicky. Your code name for her over drinks at the Alibi was “Vichy.”
But Vicky is not the point of this discussion.
“Four of us were new grads,” you say. You can hear a little tremor in your voice despite your effort to remain calm. “Of course our work wasn’t perfect, but we were willing to work hard to improve. What we needed from you was guidance and encouragement, but all we got from you was criticism and sarcasm. What I want to know is why. Why didn’t you help us? Why did you dislike us so much?”
There. You’ve said it. You can feel your blood thrumming through your veins as you lean forward, clutching the arms of the chair, waiting.
He’s shaking his head. No, he’s trembling all over. Perhaps both. Now he’s looking down at his lap.
“I really don’t know,” he says to his lap. “I suppose I – ”
“I’m not sure what – ”
More silence. He picks at a thread on the upholstered arm of his chair.
You stare at him incredulously. You’ve been imagining for such a long time how he’d react to your litany of grievances. You’ve even developed shorthand labels for the most likely scenarios. Cold Fury: He clamps your upper arm in a viselike grip and propels you to the front door, warning you never to contact him again. Mild Chagrin: He offers up a perfunctory apology and changes the subject. Profound Remorse: He begs you to forgive him, his eyes moist with emotion. But this scenario, Bewildered Silence, has just never occurred to you.
You force yourself to stop staring at him, and your glance falls on the framed photos arranged along the fireplace mantel. One photo catches your eye. There he is, blond crewcut and all, standing with a much younger, very pretty Corinne and two fair-haired children: the Warden you remember. Except that he looks like normal, happy person in the photo.
Finally he looks up at you. “I don’t understand why you’re asking me all these questions about things that happened so long ago,” he says plaintively. “I can’t – it’s so difficult to recall.”
His face is flushed. Could he be ill?
“I’m just very tired, you see.” He sighs and looks vaguely into the distance.
And then, finally, you do see. You see that it’s too late, much too late, to confront the Warden. The Warden isn’t even here. And this flustered, feeble old man who used to be the Warden has no answers for you.
The two of you sit there in silence. The grandfather clock in the far corner of the room starts to chime the hour. It’s noon, which is probably lunchtime in this household.
You hear the front door open, the happy chatter of a woman and a child.
“Corinne?” Raymond quavers.
You stand up. “I’ll get Corinne,” you tell him. “I know you need to rest, so I’ll say goodbye.”
“Goodbye, now,” he murmurs, eyelids fluttering.
In the kitchen you tell Corinne that Raymond has asked for her, that he seems to be dropping off to sleep. You thank her for the coffee and cookie, and she offers to pack some cookies for you to take along. Of course you decline. If she’d heard your conversation, she’d be the one propelling you to the front door and possibly even shoving you down the front steps.
“Did he remember you?” Corinne whispers, leaning toward you. There’s that faint scent of lavender again.
“No, I don’t think he did.”
Corinne looks stricken. “Oh, my dear, I’m so sorry. That must have been upsetting.”
“Oh, no, not at all,” you fib. “I just hope I haven’t worn him out.”
“Well, now, don’t you worry about that. I’m taking good care of him.” She glances anxiously toward the living room.
You thank her again and assure her that you’ll see yourself out so that she can check on her husband.
Outdoors, you pause at the top of the front steps as your eyes adjust to the brightness. You admire a pink hydrangea bush next to the steps. You’re feeling strangely calm, and your hands are finally warm.
When you turn back to close the front door, you find pale-haired Amanda standing in the doorway, hands planted on her little hips, fixing you with her laser-blue stare. If this were a cartoon, icicles would form along the beam from her eyes to yours.
You wish so much that you could warn her about the damaging power of that stare. About the perils of growing up and going to work and having control over other, more fragile people. And about why it’s so important to be a careful, thoughtful, considerate human being at work as well as at home.
But of course you can’t. Amanda’s just a child, after all. And right now what this little girl wants more than anything is for you to go away forever. Which, you realize, is also what you want.
You smile at her with sincere affection and goodwill.
“Goodbye,” she says pointedly.
“Goodbye, Amanda. You take care, okay?”
But she’s already turned her back on you. The front door closes with a slam.
And then it’s over.
Pamela Bloomfield’s short stories have appeared in Evening Street Review, Northern New England Review, and Iowa Woman, and her articles have been published in Public Administration Review, State and Local Government Review, and other professional journals. She is an independent consultant to governments and nonprofit organizations.
* * *
The Day the Spider Languished
By Lauren Guastella
It happened in the morning, a beautiful, sunny, summer morning, when I was headed to the kitchen for more coffee. I could already smell the alluring brew as I descended the stairs. Turning towards the kitchen after the bottom step I smiled, thinking of how bright and inviting that room always appeared in the early light. The butter yellow walls coming alive as the porcelain floor took on an ethereal glow in the reflected sun beams of the young day. Even the barely used pots and olive oil vessels around the stove became more appealing.
I approached the kitchen doorway full of contentment, ready to behold the splendor of the summer morning before tasting that next cup of coffee, I could already detect its glorious aroma and feel the warm embrace of its steam. About to set foot onto the glowing porcelain floor, something unusual caught my eye, and then I saw it. The spider. A fearsome black splotch on the pristine white floor.
At the sight of the creature, I forgot everything - myself, my resolve, and my desire for coffee. The radiance faded from the kitchen as I was struck immobile by the sight of such a deadly foe, against whom I had no chance. I stood there, frozen, paralyzed by fear. Remaining still and daring not to breathe, I wondered what it could possibly be doing here – there, now – galactic, dark, and menacing on the porcelain floor before me. What diabolical schemes could it be plotting?
Knowing that certain death was inevitable if I remained out in the open, I began inching my way towards the wall farthest from the beast, seeking cover and solace in its embrace. I melted into it, trying to make myself as two dimensional as possible. I figured that if the creature couldn’t see me it would certainly be on its way as soon as possible. I thought of the poor coffee sitting there in the pot expectantly and wondered if I should dare a peek around the corner to see if the spider still loitered.
The empty coffee cup weighed heavy in my hand as I turned over scenarios in my head ultimately wondering the exact etiquette when one makes awkward, undesired eye contact with a spider. Is it impolite to instantly turn and look away? If eye contact is in fact made, is it proper to focus on only the front two spider eyes? Or should the focus shift between all eight eyes periodically? How could I be expected to know what was correct in this situation? I wondered how often spiders encountered this. Furthermore, when spiders converse do they gaze into all eight at the same time? A noble species such as this must be used to a perpetual breach in etiquette from the likes of us.
I decided to just go for it and peek out into the kitchen, thinking that should I look into the wrong eye the creature would forgive the offense as a typical human blunder. Inhaling deeply, I attempted to flatten myself to the wall as much as I possibly could while beginning to slide along it towards the opening into the kitchen. I held my breath and peered around the corner, and there it remained, lounging dark and ominous, in the exact center of my kitchen. The path to the coffee was completely cut off. Everything in the kitchen was in fact cut off. I retreated, back behind the safety of the wall before any awkward eye contact was made.
The beast appeared to be preoccupied which, if properly leveraged, could work to my advantage. Now that its position had been confirmed I needed only devise a strategy to force its retreat without my position being compromised. I knew I was splendidly outmatched if it came to a battle, the beast had eight legs to my two and I wasn’t even wearing shoes. I made a mental scan of the nearby tools that could be employed in a military campaign against the creature; my coffee cup, a few light switches, and a pair of children’s size 13 high-top Converse. The left one. Scrappy as I was, I failed to envision a successful battle plan developing from this arsenal.
Why couldn’t it just leave and spare me the battle? It had to be passing through on its way somewhere else. The kitchen was hardly place to call home and construct a web. With eight eyes surely the beast could see this. Shoo! I thought, shoo! You don’t belong here and we both know it! I peeked back around the corner into the kitchen to discover the spider was still there, it hadn’t even moved. “Shoo!” I thought, but this time, I said it out loud. I sank back into the wall in despair knowing that the creature was now aware of my presence. Having no talent for military subterfuge I was certainly doomed.
“Are you addressing me?” came a voice.
I held my breath. Struck immobile at the sound, I became one with the wall. There was no one else at home. My daughter was at camp – possibly with only her right shoe - and the television and radio were both turned off. I peered around the corner through the kitchen searching for the source of this voice. Could I now be battling two intruders with my ill-equipped arsenal?
"Excuse me, I asked you a question. Were you addressing me just now when you said shoo?” the voice continued.
"Who said that?" I suddenly blurted out expecting no one to answer.
"Why I did of course" the voice answered half laughing. I contorted my body every which way as I looked around the visible parts of the house for the source of the voice.
"Down here, silly. Can't you see me? In the kitchen! I should think I was quite hard to miss, being in the center of the floor. I tried to reach that dark, lovely, inviting space beneath the oven, but it’s so far and today, well...” the voice trailed off.
My heart skipped a beat with the realization of who owned this voice. I instantly flattened back up against the wall with a thud. My thoughts raced back and forth between which eye or eyes to make contact with when responding and whether or not a military assault was the best option in this scenario, considering I was now acquainted with the creature.
“I am very sorry if I am in your way, I don’t mean to trouble you. I’m afraid I’m rather far from home and hopelessly lost as you can see. And on today of all days,” the beast said as I remained frozen with panic against the wall, unsure of how to respond.
“I say, can you even hear me up there?” the spider asked. It seemed futile to continue pretending it was inaudible. “I can speak louder if you prefer,” it continued with raised volume. “I’m terribly sorry, I’m not quite myself today, you see.”
“It’s ok,” was all I could muster in response, still clinging to the safety of the wall in a mixture of fear, bewilderment, and feigned military cunning.
“You’re too kind, I daresay. And on today of all days!” the beast replied.
“Today of all days?” I repeated inquisitively.
“Yes,” the spider sighed. “You see, today I’m languishing.”
“Languishing. Well, how about that,” I answered merely to fill the silence, uncertain of exactly what milestone a languishing marked in a spider’s life.
“I certainly didn’t think it would happen here! So very far from home,” the creature explained.
“So, how about a change of scenery? Maybe…today you could just languish elsewhere?” I asked.
The beast laughed in response before adding, “I couldn’t possibly go elsewhere! As I told you, I’m languishing.”
“Right, of course. Very silly of me,” I answered. It was clear now that there was no reasoning with this creature. My tactics would need to change if I wanted to vanquish this enemy.
“Silly, indeed! And on today of all days!” the spider uttered.
“Indeed,” I responded, thinking it best to remain polite while I determine how best to battle this foe. Remaining one with the wall, I mentally reviewed the arsenal of weaponry within reach, for I knew the beast now held the advantage. Coming up blank with a battle plan involving a child’s Converse and a coffee cup, I peered back into the kitchen. The spider remained still and quiet in the center of the room. I wondered what psychological warfare the creature might be baiting me into?
“I daresay it seems rather soon. My languishing, that is. I knew it was coming, of course. Well, I suppose there are some things in life that one is never quite ready for.” The beast continued.
What a scheming spider this was, loitering in my kitchen, pontificating about its own mortality! I couldn’t entertain this thought, it was exactly what the enemy wanted. The nerve of the beast! No, I must throw it off course. Do I engage it in conversation again? Confuse it by staring into each of its eyes one at a time? Or do I make a run for it? But where would I run to? Retreat upstairs? I would need the kitchen eventually. I peered back into the kitchen and could see the creature still there, dark, imposing, and unrelenting on the porcelain floor.
“It is a lovely day to languish though, isn’t it?” the beast inquired.
“Yes, I suppose it is,” I assured the creature, still wondering what it meant to languish.
Leaning back up against the wall I realized I had two options. Do I turn back? Surrender, without coffee and hope the beast finds its own way out of my kitchen and languishes elsewhere? Or do I stay and fight? My thoughts once again turned to the nearby arsenal, and where the mate to the one children’s Converse size 13 might be? For the first time since I spotted the creature, I moved. I gathered up the sneaker and turned towards the kitchen. I couldn’t just concede my kitchen and my coffee to a random spider. Especially one who was lost and languishing.
“I would certainly feel more comfortable languishing safe and sound in that dark, lovely space under the oven instead of out here in the open, but it’s so very far. I wonder, would you mind terribly helping me?” the enemy inquired.
“Would I what?” came my startled response as I hid the shoe behind my back.
“Being so tall the distance can’t be much for you. Would you mind carrying me there” the beast implored.
Carry a spider? What a foul thought! The beast couldn’t possibly be allowed to endure. I tightened my grip on the child's sized 13 Converse and prepared to advance upon my foe. I'd dared not move nor make a sound since I’d spotted the creature on the off chance it was equipped with radar, or worse, - and planning an attack of its own.
But somehow, holding the shoe had given me power. I imagined how I'd bring it down upon the porcelain floor and in so doing, smite the beast. Its once graceful form now twisted and mangled with defeat as, with a flourish, I lifted the shoe away from the floor. Triumphant. Victory is mine!
Pausing before the attack as I prepared my approach vector, I took in the sheer size of my foe. 3? 4? No - 5. Yes definitely 5. Or maybe 6? Inches? Centimeters? No, feet. Yes, certainly feet. The creature didn't move, but I heard its maniacal laughter ringing in my head as I mentally measured its gargantuan girth. Suddenly it seemed to stretch out its limbs a bit farther, taunting me as it flexed and let out a laborious sigh. Well played, tarantula. Well played indeed.
I tightened my grip on the shoe and prepared myself for battle. I reassured myself that I did in fact have the advantage, being over five feet and nine inches taller than the creature. What could possibly go wrong? I envisioned myself brining the child-sized Converse to the floor, rainbow laces fluttering with the movement, but this time my enemy's massive legs protruded out from beneath the sides of the shoe and twitched and convulsed and contorted in agony as the arachnid perished. Its legs severed from the large mass connecting them all.
A cold shiver ran up my spine and every hair stood on end. What if I missed and hit only a few of the giant limbs? Imagine the cunning prowess those languid limbs concealed. Would it limp off only to strike back with greater vengeance? Spiders, being creatures of nightmares, naturally regenerated their limbs. Or worse, what if it evaded me entirely and then chose to exact his revenge when I was at my most vulnerable?
“I say, are you still there? I do hope so, I’m grateful for the company, it’s lovely to have someone to chat to.” exclaimed my foe.
I realized I mustn't allow this beast a chance for retaliation, I had to strike. And soon. Leaving the coffee cup behind, I turned to face the kitchen wielding my weapon as I prepared for battle. The creature remained unmoving, allowing me to plan my approach. I tiptoed gingerly onto the porcelain tiles shifting my weight from foot to foot so precisely as not to activate the enemy’s radar or defense systems. I paused when I was within arm’s reach of the beast and inhaling deeply, lifted my weapon as high as I could and then with all my strength brought the shoe down on the enemy. And missed!
At first, the creature didn’t move, but instead looked up at me in desperation and blinked all eight eyes in unison as if it were trying to comprehend my actions. Sensing the imminent danger, the enemy suddenly mobilized and gathering all its eight limbs, it made a hasty retreat. My heart dropped when I realized where it was heading, I couldn't let it get away but I had now lost the element of surprise, the best weapon in my arsenal. I dared not attempt to smite the enemy with the Converse while in transit lest I miss and render it asunder leaving one leg to inch its way across the porcelain floor, tile by tile.
Desperate to end the battle, I rushed to the closest armory. Now that enemy had retreated, the cache of insect repellent stored underneath the kitchen sink was accessible. I armed myself and fired upon my foe. The creature continued its retreat, a pace ahead of my weapon's range. I extended my arm fully and fired again. And again and again and again. As each shot missed the enemy, the battlefield took on the fragrance of a meadow full of sun-drenched flowers at the height of spring. Pausing in confusion, I realized that I had armed myself with a scented household cleanser and not an insect repellent.
“AH! And on today of all days!” the creature exclaimed.
The enemy was dangerously close to its destination, a lair where it would certainly be out of my reach. I couldn’t allow it the possibility of another attack. specially one that would catch me at unawares. Desperate to avoid the terror of a potential night time attack, I armed myself with both the floral-scented cleanser and the tiny rainbow-laced Converse and pursued my enemy with both weapons. But the spider had reached its destination and drew all eight limbs into the safety that was the dark and encompassing space beneath my oven.
I held my ground, weapons drawn lest it attempt to retreat once I'd given up the field. But the enemy was sequestered deep within. I fired several squirts beneath the stove, the lab-created fragrance recalling for me the scent of the flower filled perfume fields outside of Grasse in the south of France.
“What a lovely smell,” the creature lamented. I could hear the beast inhale and exhale deeply from beneath the oven. “Like a field of flowers after a thunderstorm. I imagine this is what the south of France must smell like.”
I held my ground, uncertain if the beast was mustering its strength to reemerge in vengeance.
“I daresay, I would’ve looked lovely in stripes,” the beast sighed.
“Sorry?” I blurted.
“Stripes,” the creature continued. “I would’ve looked smashing in one of those striped sailor-esque shirts the French are always wearing. Stripes are actually very flattering on me. Particularly the horizontal ones. Can’t you just see me strolling down La Croisette in one of those shirts? Accessorized with a red neckerchief and black beret, with a baguette in one hand, a cigarette in the other – not that I condone smoking, but it is France afterall.”
“Of course,” I concurred, scanning the entrance should the beast attempt to emerge and attack.
“I wonder, have I missed out terribly?” the creature asked before sighing loudly.
“Well, the South of France…” was all I could muster in response.
“Oh, indeed,” the spider agreed.
As the enemy continued to linger beneath the stove, I surveyed the kitchen, determining the peril had, for the moment at least, abated. I tidied up the battlefield. But still I felt the presence of eight tiny eyes on the back of my head as I finally refilled my coffee cup. I left the floral-scented cleanser on the counter, just in case.
“Farewell, my friend,” the beast taunted me as I withdrew. “No hard feelings,” the creature’s voice sounding labored from the battle. I paused in the doorway, but was at a loss for words.
Hours later and ready to begin my evening, I found myself retracing my steps and returned to the battlefield. The memory of the morning’s atrocities nearly forgotten as the kitchen took on an otherworldly appearance in the elongated twilight shadows. Flicking the light on, it all come crawling back as an unidentified stationary object caught my eye.
But something was different this time. This was indeed the same spider that had bested me on this very field this morning. But the posture was different, smaller, less elegant, frozen, in a most unnatural pose. Belly up, all eight legs crumbled inward into harsh, awkward angles as they no longer held any purpose.
Languishing. I cursed myself as I realized how impetuous I'd been, how utterly ridiculous, as the meaning of the term finally suck in. Today of all days, was the last day of that its life. And despite myself, I couldn’t just let the creature languish in peace. I stood there, shoulders slumped, wondering exactly how one might honor a languished spider.
Lauren Guastella is a single mother living and working in Central New Jersey where she uses writing to explore the world around her. From her unique point of view, Lauren presents the familiar aspects of everyday life in a new and surreal manner.
* * *
By Silvia E. Hines
I email my daughter in medical school in Chicago the minute I see the newspaper story about Susan Simpson’s death from poisoning. My children grew up with her children down the block: Big-Wheeled the same streets, scaled the same trees, probably shoplifted the same minimarts. Rebecca calls me at once and insists I read the article over the phone.
“A Springdale woman was found dead in her home of apparent poisoning Sunday evening,” I read. “Preliminary reports indicate Susan Simpson, 58, ingested a lethal dose of a substance, possibly coming from one of several pill bottles found at her home. Her son Robert, 30, said he
became suspicious when his mother didn’t answer the phone Sunday morning and used his key to enter the home. A younger son, Cory, 28, couldn’t be reached. According to Robert, Cory moved recently from his mother’s house and is residing in another state. Toxicology screens
haven’t been completed, and police have not ruled out homicide. Simpson told this reporter his mother had no enemies.”
“No enemies, hah!” Rebecca says emphatically. “Bobby himself hated her, you know. I’ll never forget how furious he was when his mother let the school take him out of first grade and put him in that special ed class for his dyslexia!”
“So he killed her twenty-five years later?”
“I didn’t say that, Mom. But it’s possible. These things fester.”
Next, I phone my technophobe son David at his ashram in Albuquerque.
“You know,” he says, “everyone in the neighborhood talked about Bobby because of his learning disability, but Cory was the real problem. He was a little thief. I never told you this, but it was Cory who stole that statue from the Lawrence’s sculpture garden.”
“And how do you know about that?”
“That’s not the point, Mom. Try to focus. The woman couldn’t control either of the boys after their father left. I really think there’s potential there.”
Later that day, the police come knocking, followed by my neighbor, Carla.
“Did you talk to the cops?” she asks. “I told them what a jerk the boys’ father was. Remember when he threw Susan’s cat out in the street?”
“So you’re saying he did it?”
“No, I just thought they should know. I think she had terminal cancer.”
“Oh, you think she overdosed on purpose?”
“I saw her several times going into the high-rise on Center Street, the one across the street from the library. I checked, and there’s an oncology practice in the building.”
Rebecca emails me later that evening. “So what do you think happened, Mom?”
I reply with Carla’s cancer theory. Rebecca phones at 11 pm, my time.
“Mom, the high-rise has lots of other offices in it. The city’s adult basic education program is there. Remember, I tutored there in high school?”
My call waiting beeps, and it’s her brother. Don’t either of them know about time zones? I click on conference call and rest my head on my pillow while the two of them deconstruct neighborhood history for sinister events. I perk up when I hear David telling Rebecca about an incident at the Simpson house when Bobby brought home a note from his teacher.
“I was in their den playing Nintendo,” David says, “and I heard Susan tell Cory to read Bobby’s note, as though he was the father and somehow responsible for his older brother! She insisted he read it right away.”
Rebecca questions the reliability of David’s memory, and he questions her basic motives, just like old times. To distract them, as I used to do, I ask the first question that comes to mind. “Do either of you know what causes dyslexia?”
Rebecca answers quickly. “There’s a large hereditary component.”
“What if the label on the pill bottle was misread?” I ask. “And the wrong drug or dosage was taken?”
“It was Bobby who couldn’t read,” David starts, but he quickly stops.
“So maybe Susan couldn’t read either?” Rebecca’s words give me a chill.
“And she used to get Cory to read for her, but he moved away,” David chimes in.
“So she starts adult ed classes to finally work on her reading.” Rebecca softly offers.
“But the pharmacist on Elm insists on giving generic drugs, with those long, hard-to-read names,” I add, my head now heavy on the pillow.
I close my eyes and am quickly in the halfway land between waking and sleep. I think my son is just a little boy, spitting streams from a water gun, saying in his sweet childhood voice, “Call the police tomorrow, Mom.” And my daughter is a teenager again, yelling at me through the phone extension upstairs: “Hang up the phone, Mom!” Finally, Susan appears, alive and well, refusing to take the birding book I tried to lend her all those years ago, which mystified me because she was an avid birdwatcher.
Silvia Hines worked as a freelance writer and editor for many years. She's published lots of medical, health, and feature articles; two short stories in Redbook Magazine; and most recently, an essay in Still Crazy. She's concentrating now on literary short stories and personal essays.
* * *
As Easy as Threading a Needle
By Samantha Knight
Walter sits in his sturdy chair, gently rocking himself back and forth with his gray slipper on the hard-wood floor. Rain patters against the window on this dark afternoon, almost drowning out the ticking of the grandfather clock.
“Oh, sweetie, handling an iPhone for you would be about as easy as threading a needle.”
Her words are resonating in his head as he finishes his cross-word puzzle; his fingers drum on the arm of his chair.
“Don’t worry, dear, we will get you the fanciest flip phone they have. You will be the talk of the street; even Eugene doesn't have a cell-phone!” She had winked at him before securing her feathered fat on her neatly combed salt and pepper hair. “I will be back from bingo before dinner.”
Walter suddenly stops rocking his chair. Eugene, that crusty loon? He grimaces in the thought of his arch-nemesis, the only other man on their street to own a restored vintage car—but a year older, to boot. Whether it’s competing for the high score in the community's weekly game of horseshoes, or playing over his accordion at Christmas parties with his—irritatingly charming—acoustic music, Eugene always seems to one-up Walter.
But just as she was getting into her car to drive to bingo, he darted out onto their front porch.
“But Stel, that old goat has a...a,” He was unable to remember what the device was called, so Walter waved his hands in front of him like it was a game of charades, to which Stella only nodded while rolling her eyes.
“Yes! And he can't help but show off the damn thing every chance he gets! He does cross-word puzzles on it, Stel, and here I am stuck in the seventeen-hundreds with a measly puzzle-book and pencil...”
Stella scoffed humorously at Walter's petty jealously, but his frown only grew.
Leaving the car door open, she walked back up the steps to him. “It's not even his, dear, it belongs to his wife,” she paused to cup her husband's red face in her delicate hands; her kind smile calmed his tense facial expression. “And the only thing he knows how to do on it is play his puzzles. So, don't worry so much, ya old grump.”
They both smiled, but Walters' followed with a long sigh of defeat.
“Well, it would still put Colonel Blimp into his place if I had an iPad phone.”
“'iPhone', you mean? And you'd end up breaking it before showing it off,” Stella giggled. “Best keep it simple,” she turned around to head back to her car. “Remember the resort we stayed at when we took that trip to the vineyards? We don’t want any repeats of that, do we?” Her faint eyebrows raised as her eyes fixed on his. “And that was just a computer…”
She had backed out of the driveway, but paused to roll down her window. “Like threading—”
“A needle,” they both finished simultaneously, Walter now rolling his eyes and Stella smiling contently before disappearing down the street.
Oddly enough, he remembers all too well their stay at that resort—the wine, the fifty, the cigarette, and the doors.
They had arrived at the Okanagan Vineyards on their fortieth anniversary, and Walter wanted to plan their whole weekend, as opposed to Stella making all their arrangements—as she usually did for their trips over the years; this was mostly because she was comfortable using a computer, whereas her husband had the patience of a four-year-old.
“Modern technology is so futuristic,” she'd often remind him. However, “futuristic” was a very broad term to Walter, since even their own box-style television hadn’t been updated since the eighties.
It was late when he stumbled out of the resort pub, though he had only two glasses of the feature wine; it was the cobblestone floor that caused him fumble as he walked, he told himself.
“Oh bother, might as well be walking home from the bar on train tracks,” he mumbled incoherently as he regained his balance.
The young gentleman that worked the front desk had been on a coffee break, but Walter had recalled him explaining that they could also book their spots for the tours on the guest computers, which were conveniently situated in the lobby outside the pub entrance.
Needless to say, after another glass of the chardonnay—which he was forced to chug after unsuccessfully arguing with the pub bouncer over taking his glass back to his computer—several failed attempts to log in and burning a hole in the computer-chair upholstery while wrestling his cigarette back from the receptionist, Walter was escorted from the building while Stella paid for the room—and the various damages.
“If you had just accepted the young man’s help with the computer, you wouldn’t have frozen it and none of this would have happened!” She huffed as she toted her suitcase down the front steps.
Walter was still making a fuss, cussing and waving his hands through the air while standing just outside the lobby doors, which were indecisively opening and closing as he set off the sensors.
“Didn't feel frozen to me, in fact, it was blowing hot air! Stupid thing just didn't work properly. And I don’t need no help from any smart-ass kid! It wouldn’t accept my fifty; I inserted it in the slot, but there were so many damn buttons!”
“It only takes credit, dear.” His wife sighed, staring up at him from the parking lot.
“Well, why in carnation do you have to pay to use the thing anyway? And—” His flailing had knocked his suitcase between the automatic doors, which were now firmly closed around it. “What in the hell is wrong with these doors!”
The scene was attracting quite the audience as Walter muttered curse words as he bent down to pull his luggage from the grip of the doors, but it wouldn’t budge.
“Sir,” the receptionist called tiredly from behind the front desk, “you’ve been setting off the sensors. Try stepping away and then stepping back onto the mat, they will open.”
“What now?” Walter replied through a sharp exhale, straightening up stiffly. But as he did so, the doors suddenly opened again, releasing their grip on the suitcase. Walter quickly—or as “quick” as his back would allow—bent down to pull it free, just as the doors closed shut on it once again.
Those that watched helplessly shook their heads; some tried to hide a smile by covering their mouth, while others simply stood with them drooping open, stunned.
“Sir—” but the employee’s monotone words trailed off as he realized his advice would once again go unheeded, and the cycle continued. He buried his face in his hands as he watched Walter work relentlessly to pry the doors open and free his bag, his eyes flaming with purpose. The doors shuddered, but were ultimately unyielding.
After another long minute of hokey-pokey, the doors finally remained open. All went silent as Walter stood still, eying up the doors that seemed very much alive at this point, taunting him.
He took a few measured breaths with his hands on his hips, surveying the doors to ensure they had made up their mind and he would no longer be humiliated. Finally, he picked up his suitcase. He scoffed as he took one last glance at the motionless faces in the lobby, with his chin up high and his lips pursed like a toddler. As he turned to head down the steps into the parking lot, he nearly walked into his wife, who was standing right behind him, glaring.
But that was a few years back, and since then, he had learned to set the timer on their Keurig machine—a feat he was proud to brag about to their friends. It was this, and their technologically-advanced grand-kids, that inspired Walter to prove to his wife that he could manage the latest cellphone. But whether it was his wife’s constant comparisons to needle-threading, or his stubbornly independent nature, he made the decision that day to mend his own shirt for the first time. He was, after all, a quick learner.
An old table fan rotates weakly and is rather unnecessary, as the temperature of the room is already chilly—it’s the comfort of thinking his cigarette smoke won’t be noticed that gives it its household purpose.
In the center of the living room there is a Persian-style area rug, which is also old and visibly tattered; it is frayed at all the corners.
Beside the brick fire place, in which a small fire burns a single piece of wood and crackles consistently, is his wife’s china cabinet. She is a collector, valuing small porcelain figurines on musical spools and a variety of antique crystal glasses. Walter, on the other hand, cherishes his expensive liquors, including the nineteen-seventy-six bourbon that he enjoys on special occasions— “special” occasions such as birthdays, holidays, and re-runs of I Dream of Genie. And on such occasions, he also enjoys a cigarette with his drink, but he never smokes inside—or at all— unless Stella isn’t home.
Walter removes the wool blanket from his knees, re-tightens his bath-robe, and shuffles over to the liquor cabinet, which is hand-carved and an heirloom from his grandfather. The whiskey he pours into one of his wife’s crystal glasses—which is never aloud, unless she isn’t there—is also old, perhaps not an heirloom, but it has aged nicely. It is smooth, and the bite non-existent as he takes the first glass down right away, before pouring another and heading back to his chair.
“You’re not supposed to drink any hard liquor,” Stella had instructed him the last time he poured a glass in front of her, “the doctor says eight glasses of water a day.”
“Bah! I was cracking beers with my Pa when he was born,” Walter had rebutted, “and the man has a hair-do like a damn cockatoo, we can’t trust his judgment.”
Pausing after he takes his seat again, he is distracted by the scene on the TV; a creatively-dressed woman with bright blue hair struts around a stage singing something he can’t understand. His cheeks wrinkle in confusion, or disgust, he’s not quite sure.
After staring in bewilderment for a few moments, he shakes his head and, using the fire iron, pokes at the television set until he finally hits the silver ‘off’ button.
Walter gently turns the single nob on the antique record player and the scratchy sounds of Peggy Lee fill the room; it skips every so often, but the musicality is still there.
As he fidgets around to find a comfortable position in his rocking chair once again, Walter turns on the lamp that sits on his side table, illuminating a needle and a spool of thread.
He quickly locates the rip in his shirt armpit when his whole hand suddenly pokes through, and then cuts a fair length of the brown thread. But as the fan rotates back in his direction, it blows the thread onto the floor, camouflaging it from sight.
After examining the hardwood until his eyes hurt from squinting, he finally spots the bugger and, with the hand that’s still caught through the hole of his shirt, leans over to grab the thread. When he hears the ripping sound it is too late to notice that he was sitting on the rest of his shirt when he had leaned over, beyond what the fabric would allow.
He scoffs at the garment, snarling at the, now gaping, hole in the armpit. Shaking his head, Walter turns his attention to the next step. His breathing slows as he attempts to grasp the fine needle off the table, but his fingers are too fat.
“Damn sausage fingers,” he grunts under his breath.
In his deep focus, his tongue sticks out the corner of his mouth, tickled by his gray mustache as he presses one end of the needle into the table with his long thumb nail. The other end of the needle—the sharp end—rises and is now graspable. But as Walter quickly goes to grab it, he instead pricks his thumb and winces in pain, shaking his hand about.
The needle is again flat on the wooden table. Taking in a few deep breaths, he attempts again, but this time, he smiles as he pushes the sharp end into the table instead. This works, and he holds up his success.
He brings the needle increasingly closer to his souring face. “Where’s the dang hole?” he mumbles, though only his mustache moves when he does.
When he finally finds it, he is dismayed to discover how small it really is. He sighs and attempts his first threading, which fails. As he tries a second time, the string loosens from his grip and plummets into the heap of blankets on his lap.
Though his eyes hurt from squinting, he finally recovers the string—again— and sets it on the table underneath the weight of the spool. He then gets up and begins rummaging through the drawers of the bureau.
Nestling back in his chair, Walter struggles with his flimsy glasses before finally getting them on the bridge of his crooked nose.
On the side table, the string is there, but now the needle is nowhere to be seen. Though he’s thankful for no prickly pain in his bottom side, Walter grinds his dentures in frustration and begins examining his lap and the floor around the chair. Nothing.
Despite his attempt to stand carefully—so to catch the location of the needle if it falls—Walter fumbles, losing his balance and nearly tipping over sideways. Regaining his stance, he adjusts his glasses and shakes out the blanket. Nothing. He closely examines the chair. Nothing.
“Where is that darn thing?” his deep voice cracks from a dry throat, which he moistens with a sip of whiskey.
Pausing to scratch his head, which leaves his gray hair sticking up, he sighs bitterly before getting on his hands and knees to check under the chair and table. Still no sign of the needle, but a few unknown joints crack as he wrestles with himself to get back up.
After thinking for a moment, he rushes over to his wife’s china cabinet and rustles in a drawer, causing various papers and photos to fall onto the ground in his haste. He opens the other drawers, and makes a further mess. When Walter comes to the final drawer, he opens it and reluctantly continues searching for another needle, tossing objects out of it and about the room.
Batteries roll around before stopping at the edge of the rug, papers blow from the fan before settling, and photos scatter into the next room; something hits the record player and the song skips over and over. He finally realizes that he’s just going to have to find that needle, and so he takes a gulp of his whiskey straight from the bottle and grunts loudly as it goes down.
Slamming the last cabinet drawer shut in frustration, a small porcelain figurine falls from the shelf and smashes into three large pieces on the floor at his feet.
Walter stares at it in disbelief, mouth wide open. He finally gasps as he bends down to examine the damage.
“Stella will notice this…” the terrifying thought is visible on his face.
The maiden’s torso and arms are intact, but her head and the musical spool are dismembered, with a couple tiny shards among them. He pokes at the head, which roles in a circle and, once settled, seems to stare up at him.
“Don’t look at me like that, you pesky little-” he grunts under his breath at it as he picks it up, followed by the other pieces, and sets them atop the cabinet. Walter glances around the living room. So much for threading a needle, he thinks. Now what am I supposed to do?
The grandfather clock dongs its nineteenth hour, she will be home soon! Walter begins to panic—both his hands rest atop his head as he begins pacing back and forth.
He always told himself he wasn’t afraid of his wife, after all, he’d known her for sixty years, but when it came to her things and what she had specifically told him, he was at least nervous—if not truly afraid.
In unrealistic optimism, he attempts to repair the poor figurine by holding the pieces together as they once were--would it be enough to will it together? But to his dismay, even at the expected result, the pieces return to their separated state once he lets them go. How to hold them together?
Walter glances up at the spot on the top shelf of the china cabinet where she stood for many years, untouched. Walter blows away the small circle of dust that formed around the base of the musical spool. No, that won’t do, she will still notice.
Walter re-arranges the other five figurines on the shelf, sighing tiredly as he does. He observes their new formation, then shakes his head in disapproval and tries again. After re-arranging them once more, he is again dissatisfied. No, she will notice that too. The damn perfectionist!
So he arranges the figurines back into their original positions—this takes him a few tries to get right.
Perplexed, Walter walks briskly back over to his side table, swigs his whiskey, pushes up his sleeves and kicks off his slippers.
He lines the base of the porcelain head with some old super glue he came across in the cabinet, and then holds it on the torso.
With a little luck, and a man’s handiness…he begins to feel confident. But when he carefully releases the torso after a few seconds, he notices that the head is glued on backwards.
“Maybe if…” his words are muffled under his moustache as he places the disfiguration in the middle of the other figurines. He steps back, squints at the unsightly repair, then snorts as he wipes the sweat from his brow. “Bah! That won’t do either!”
Walter exhales sharply, grasps the figurine again and yanks the head off, getting the tacky glue on his fingers.
Now sweating profusely, he again glances at the clock; Stella will be home any minute, and not only is the needle lost and the house a mess, but her priceless antique figurine is broken.
He attempts to re-seal the head to the torso, in the right direction, but when he pulls his fingers away the head is now glued to his thumb instead.
“Son of a—!”
Walter frowns as he tries to detach the porcelain head from his thumb, gently enough not to break it, but hard enough that it pulls his hair and skin.
“Blasted!” He lets go, but the head is still firmly glued to his thumb.
His frustration builds. Another swig—or three—right from the bottle is no solution, but it takes the edge off as he is now feeling the warmth of the liquor.
The looming sound of a car door slamming and his wife’s heals clicking up the drive-way cripples his wit. In his impulsive and desperate state, Walter forgets about the finger-head and instead places a small bowling trophy among the other figurines. A temporary solution, at best.
The needle! he recalls again, now feeling more overwhelmed than ever and nearly slipping on the loose batteries on the floor.
The grandfather clock seems to tick louder now, and the smell of burning is in the air. Noticing this, Walter stops his train of thought and looks around the room for the culprit; one of the papers that had fallen out of a drawer earlier had blown into the hearth and now smokes in the embers.
He hurriedly slips back into his slippers and steps on the paper, which crumbles into smoking ash. Walter then splashes the remaining sip of whiskey from his glass onto the still-glowing ashes, which hits some of the coals and causes the mess to hiss and bellow out a bigger puff of smoke.
He jumps when the sudden high-pitched sound of the smoke alarm goes off. Walter gasps and darts in the direction of the kitchen to turn it off. But when his slipper escapes his gait, he tumbles down into a home-run slide on the hard-wood floor, his hands stretched out before him. The harmless slide is quickly forgotten as his attention is diverted; the dooming arrival that he was expecting had come without his preparation, his inevitable fate: She’s home!
Scrambling to his feet, Walter grips the edge of his bureau for support, and comes face to face with his nemesis.
“You!” his voice is deep and raspy, and his blue eyes widen.
There it is, the needle, sitting so innocently atop the bureau where he had unnoticingly left it when searching for his glasses earlier—he often forgot little things daily, but usually it was just his glasses on top his head.
He glares with a furrowed brow, briefly forgetting the inevitable confrontation that awaits him. “This is all your fault!” he scowls at the inanimate object while still leaning on the bureau.
He spins around to face his wife, completely bewildered and disheveled from his chaos; his hair is swept in every direction, robe wide open—leaving nothing to the imagination—with beads of sweat dripping into his beard, and of course, he’s missing a slipper.
Stella is speechless and frozen in the door way. She drops her purse onto the floor. The smoke alarm finally turns off on its own, as if it, too, were afraid of the situation.
The ceiling is engulfed in a smoky haze, while glass, papers, and photos litter the floor, and the record hiccups the same three words.
“What in God’s name…” her mouth is gaping as she glances around the destroyed room until her eyes fix on her beloved figurine’s head, which is still glued to his fat thumb.
“Oh, hi Dear... I wasn’t expecting you back so soon, I was just-” Walter stutters, but quickly realizes that this charade won’t fly, and he sighs heavily. “Oh for goodness sake, it’s not what it looks like, Stel!” he admits, hastily re-tying his robe. “I was just trying to thread a needle when—”
“Just threading a needle?” Stella repeats bleakly, taking a step further into the disaster. Her frustration begins to show as her face hardens and her eyes blink a few times as she tries to comprehend the situation.
Walter is horrified, breathing heavily. He finally shrugs his shoulders and forces a meek smile.
“Well, on the bright side, you were right,” he reassures humbly before reaching behind him to pick up the needle with his good hand. “Here’s your needle back.” He takes a careful step towards her, holding it out. “I will just let you take care of the mending from now on. Okay?”
But Stella doesn’t move, nor does she look at her husband.
“Hunny?” His breath reeks of liquor.
She still doesn’t say a word, but her cherry-red lips quiver as she finally notices the rest of her broken figurine that he forgot about on the cabinet. Walter also glances at it with his frozen half-smile, and his ribcage sinks into his spine.
“Is that my limited-edition milk-maiden figurine in pieces?” her flaring eyes pan back towards his hand. “You glued her head to your thumb?!”
Despite everything, he’s still caught off guard, with no possible excuse within the realm of believability. Impulsively, Walter quickly swings his hand—and the porcelain head—behind his back in a fruitless attempt to hide his mistake. But his thumb collides with the bureau behind him and the maiden’s head shatters into several shards.
After a brief, and tense, silence, he replies coyly, “not anymore…” Walter’s grin slowly fades into a truly petrified expression.
But, it was this unyielding ambition and adorable stubbornness that made her fall in love with this oaf in the first place, Stella reminds herself.
“Perhaps I don’t need an iPhone after all…”
Samantha graduated from the English program at UBC, Okanagan, in 2014. She is now also a group fitness instructor in Alberta, and she and her husband are expecting their first child. This publication is her sixth achievement in her writing career thus far, and she hopes to become a published novelist.
* * *
By Geordie Little
Davis sucked hard on a cigarette, crushing the filter between his thumb and forefinger. From the passenger seat, Kayla’s hoarse, high pitched voice cut through the drone of the radio and the hum of the road.
“Baby I love this song, you want to turn it up?”
Davis obliged, and stubbed out his cigarette in the ashtray underneath the radio. His fingers felt sweaty with nicotine.
I’m broke but I’m happy, I’m poor but I’m kind…
“I thought you only listened to country?”
Kayla looked over at him.
“This is country, isn’t it?”
I’m lost but I’m hopeful, baaaaby…
He gripped the steering wheel with both hands, and the white lines on the road rushed past in a blur. Kayla was singing.
“And what it all comes down to, is that everything’s gonna be fine, fine fine…”
Davis concentrated on the sound of the engine. Did his cam shaft belt need to be realigned? He cracked the window to hear better. Cold air rushed into the truck.
“Cause I’ve got one hand in my pocket…”
“Baby, you want to be quiet for a second?”
“…And the other one’s giving a high five!”
The engine was definitely making a rattling noise. Davis’ phone was buzzing in his pocket, and he took it out and glanced at the screen. Jessica calling. He pushed the old Nokia back into his jeans.
“You want to be quiet for a second?”
She folded her arms and slumped back in the seat.
“We’re nearly there anyway, you can run the damn truck once you drop me off.”
Davis turned the radio off and they both sat in silence, listening to the engine whine and rattle as they rounded the corner of Fayette and Sherwood. Davis shifted down through the gears and came to a stop outside Lin’s Kitchen. He could smell eggs.
“You going to come in?” said Kayla.
“S’pose I might. Fix me a coffee. Gonna run the truck a little.”
She swung open the door and stepped out onto the icy pavement, holding her jacket shut with her arms crossed across her body.
“Aight baby. Don’t leave me in there making a coffee for nobody y’hear?”
She turned away and walked into the diner, and Davis pulled the key out of the ignition. He leaned back and stared at the sagging roof liner of the truck. It had a foot-long tear, reaching from the corner of the windscreen to just above the driver’s seat, and David could see the peeling adhesive underneath. He pulled his phone out of his pocket. One new voicemail. Turning his head to look out the window, he brought the phone to his ear.
Hello Davis. I don’t know if you’re going to listen to this, I don’t know if this is even still your number, but Christmas is coming soon. I suppose you must know that.
The sun was starting to rise over the elementary school across the road, and the playground equipment cast a long shadow through the wire fence and onto the sidewalk. Jessica’s voice sounded thin through the cheap phone.
The Dumonts will be coming down, and Aunt Loretta. I know you didn’t come last time, but it has been two years now. Mother misses you. I miss you too Davis. Just think about it.
The phone clicked, and Davis put it back in his pocket. Somewhere in town, a dog started barking.
The floor of Lin’s Kitchen was off-white linoleum, stretching from the kitchen past the counter and out underneath the dining booths, with their red and white synthetic leather and sticky, coffee stained table tops.
The heat hit him as soon as he walked through the door, and Davis took off his woolen flannel jacket. He could hear oil hissing and bubbling in the kitchen, and the bare light tubes on the ceiling buzzed like trapped insects.
Davis chose a seat near the door and after a minute Kayla came out of the kitchen and joined him, carrying two cups of black coffee.
“So, does it sound alright?” she said, pulling her dark blonde hair back into a ponytail.
“The truck. Does it sound alright?”
“Oh, right. No, I reckon I’ll probably have to take it by
Donny’s. Get him to have a look at it.”
“Aight. You gonna do that on the weekend?”
“S’pose I might.” Davis looked down at his boots. They had mud caked around the soles and underneath the laces. The leather at the front was worn down on both feet, and the dull, scratched steel was showing through. “I better take this to go,” he said. “Gonna be late soon.”
Driving to the site took Davis away from the shops, past most of the houses and into the frontiers of the town, where the wooden skeletons of new homes stood tall in bare paddocks and let the frozen wind blow through them. The clear blue light of the morning was beginning to give way to warmer tones, and Davis knew that he had to be at least twenty minutes late.
He turned down Raymond Street, where he was working on the construction of some apartments, and kept driving until he saw them disappear in his rear-view mirror. He drove until he saw a blue neon Bud Light sign on a red brick building.
It was quiet inside, too early for all but a few regular drinkers. A man in khaki work pants and a thick jacket leaned on the bar, drinking quickly and glancing at the clock. Another man sat slumped in the farthest corner, asleep, with three empty bottles on the table in front of him. Davis made his way to the end of the bar, far from anybody else.
“You after a drink?” said the bartender. She had deep crow’s feet and grey streaks through her hair.
“I am. Heineken.”
Davis’ phone vibrated in his pocket. He let it ring out and drank his beer slowly. The man in the work pants left the bar and others began to shuffle in. They were mostly older, and they said nothing to each other as they took their seats. The bartender poured their drinks without asking what they wanted.
Davis finished his beer, then another, then he took out his phone. One new voicemail. He held it to his ear. Jessica was crying.
Davis, I… Did I do something? Are you upset with me? Why can’t you just tell us where you are?
He breathed in sharply, and signaled for another drink.
We just want to know where you are, that’s all we want. Are you okay? Mother can’t even say your name. She won’t watch the news because she thinks she’ll see you on it, washed up on a beach somewhere. Please. Please, answer the phone. Nobody cares what you did any more.
The bartender was staring at him.
“You look a little shook up hun,” she said.
“Here.” She handed him his beer. “This’ll sort you out better than talking to me would,” she said, then turned and disappeared into the back of the bar.
Five hours later Davis stepped outside, narrowing his eyes against the bright light. His body felt heavy and he was walking in bursts, three or four steps at a time, his legs crossing over in front of each other. He took his keys out of his pocket and stabbed at the door of the truck, scratching sky blue paint off pale steel. He did this five times, then took the keys into the palm of his hand and slammed them into the door, hard, leaving a dent above the handle.
Across the road, a woman walking her dog stopped and looked at Davis, shaking her head. He spat on the ground and shouted at her.
“Fuck you, white trash bitch. Take your fucking dog and keep walking.”
She hurried away, leaving Davis alone outside the bar. He stumbled down the street, to where the pavement ran down into yellowish grass and he could hear water.
The McAllister River ran through the eastern side of the town, from the Van Lier Resources power plant and past the new housing districts, before eventually running into the Maillard-Luireau Estuary and the ocean beyond that.
Davis propped himself up against a tree and watched the silty, brown water run over sodden logs and debris. A five-gallon plastic container was half buried in the bank in front of him, filled with stagnant water and new life.
He closed his eyes and listened to the river and the dogs barking in the distance.
The sun was setting when Davis parked his truck outside Lin’s Kitchen, and Kayla was already waiting for him.
“What took you? I been finished for half an hour,” she said as she climbed in. The hair was falling out of her ponytail, and there were bags under her eyes.
“Worked late,” he said.
“You been drinking? You stink like beer.”
“Had one after I finished.” Davis turned to Kayla. She was silent, waiting for him to apologize. He shifted the truck into first and pulled out onto the road. She turned the radio up loud and looked out the window, her forehead resting against the glass.
They were living in a unit behind Kayla’s parents’ house. It was a small weatherboard building with a bedroom, a bathroom and a kitchen. They slept on a fold out sofa, and if Kayla brought her friends around they would fold it up and watch TV together in the bedroom. Usually Davis would walk around to the bar.
Kayla got out of the truck as soon as it was stopped, and walked inside without saying a word. Davis followed her, slowly, taking off his jacket as he did. He stopped for a moment to look at the sky. When he got inside she was sitting on the bed with the TV on.
“I didn’t mean to be late,” he said, not apologizing.
“Don’t much matter what you meant,” she said.
He nodded in agreement. “S’pose not. You mind if I come up on there?”
He climbed up next to her and put his arm around her and they watched TV together until she fell asleep. Jimmy Kimmel was interviewing a man in a black suit with a white cowboy hat resting on his knees. He had a short white beard and a weathered, sun damaged face.
And did you expect to have this kind of success? People are saying, you know, “this is a really great album. This is the kind of album we haven’t heard come out of Nashville in years.” Are you surprised by that?
Well, of course, I, uh- It’s been a very humbling experience. You know, I’ve been making music for twenty-five years now, and-
And to finally have people taking notice is-
You didn’t expect it.
See, that’s what people like about you! You’re real, you’re authentic. You’re just a country boy making country music, right?
Well, uh, yes, I suppose so.
The man shifted in his seat, and wiped the sweat from his brow with the sleeve of his suit jacket. He looked up at the stage lights, and the camera operators and the crowd. Davis switched off the TV.
He got out of the bed, picked up his jacket off the kitchen counter and put it on, then stepped outside into the backyard of Kayla’s parents’ house.
The grass was wet, and Davis stood still for a while in the moonlight and listened to the dogs bark. He felt in his pocket for the keys to the truck.
Davis drove all night, and when the sun rose it illuminated a world of rolling hills and rich, green grass. His eyes were heavy but he kept driving, listening to the rattling of his engine and the silence from the radio. He lit his last cigarette, and then scrunched up the pack and threw it into the passenger seat footwell.
Over the crest of a hill, a house came into a view. It was colossal, three stories and an attic, a boat house on a river and a two-mile driveway buried in oak and willow. Davis turned into the driveway and looked out through the trees to Belmont River in the distance.
Its wide, crystalline body wound around the house and alongside the driveway, bordered by reeds on both sides. The water moved through it too slowly to make a sound, crawling towards its eventual destination, 900 miles away, through the McAllister River, past the Van Lier Resources power plant and into the Maillard-Luireau Estuary.
Davis stubbed out his cigarette and pulled up his truck outside the enormous house. He couldn’t hear anybody moving inside and he wondered if they were all lying in bed, shaken awake by the whining and rattling of his dying engine.
He took off his work boots on the veranda and stood them neatly against the wall, and then he opened the door and let himself in.
Geordie Little is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. He spent some time living in Anchorage, Alaska, where he found his feet as a fiction writer. He is previously unpublished.
* * *
Even in the Dark
By Calder G. Lorenz
Scarlet was driving around town, feeling a little lost about things, on her way to another restaurant gig (she’d been doing day after day, shift after shift, her sense of time now a hair-clogged drain), when Jeanie said to her: “If we keep this up, we’re never going to get anywhere that’s worth getting to.”
Scarlet thought: I feel like Jeanie is never right about anything, but this time she is right.
In that moment, she understood where she was. She saw the signs. She recognized the park and the long dense patches of mulberry bushes. How long had it been since she’d been there? She stopped the car. She parked. She said to Jeanie, “We should take a walk here.”
Jeanie hesitated. She wasn’t one for abrupt transitions. She needed pauses and explanations and plans heaped on top of plans. She looked around to see where they were. She didn’t know this part of Washington, D.C. She wondered if maybe she was a contestant of some kind or maybe she was on a hidden camera thing or a guest on some afternoon airing television show that surprised folks with silly little excursions. She watched as Scarlet turned off her phone and then put it in the glove box. Jeanie decided to gather her jacket and then touch the corners of her eyes and then pucker her lips in the mirror. She said, “I take it this means we’ll be scrimping again this month.”
Scarlet tossed her apron in the backseat. She inventoried the car for anything worth stealing and then she got out. She drummed on the roof of the car. She said, “Those bums at work won’t even notice I’m gone. That place is a revolving door to nowhere.”
Jeanie asked, “Where are we? Is it dangerous?” She curled her lips.
And Scarlet said, “Do you have to ask that everywhere we go? We’re up the hill from the National Zoo.” She said, “My dad used to take me here.” She said, “We lived right up the street past those trees.”
Scarlet pointed at a tree-lined park. There were blankets and baskets out and music was drifting from devices. A hunched man pushed his cart up the hill.
“You lived in the park?” Jeanie asked. She crumpled her face. She shook her shoulders.
Scarlet went over and took her hand. She closed her eyes and then took a deep breath. She said, “Jeanie, no, we lived in an apartment up the street.”
Jeanie pulled her hand away. She said, “Yeah, I get it.” She said, “I don’t like this sidewalk.” She said, “It’s too steep for me.”
Scarlet dismissed Jeanie and soon they started down. Scarlet said, “Take off those stupid shoes.”
Jeanie started to protest but then she almost toppled into Scarlet. She held out her hands for balance. She grabbed onto her roommate’s shoulder and then she relented. She pulled off her heels.
They walked along the path and she swung the shoes.
Jeanie said, “I don’t know about this town. When I get money I’m going back to where I can buy something with nothing.”
Scarlet laughed at that.
Jeanie laughed at that.
They pushed at each other.
Scarlet said, “I’m not leaving here until I’m President.”
“Not sure if you’ve heard the news, but there’s no such thing as a woman president.”
“But there will be.”
“But not yet.”
“There will be.”
Jeanie shook her head. “They’ll never let it happen.” She pulled back her hair and then let it drop. She said, “I hate talking politics with you. You’re too literal.”
Scarlet ignored her roommate and went to where the sidewalk stopped, to where there was a railing, to where the bushes began. They could see out over the zoo. They could see the tall iron entrance gate and the houses and some of the concrete pits where the animals lived. The area was all trees and fences and banners. The area was green and fortified in a way that didn’t look at all enclosed. Scarlet thought that it looked like something that would be called, urban lush.
Scarlet leaned into the bushes and started picking berries. She ate one and then another. She held out her hand to Jeanie. She said, “Eat a mulberry with me.”
“They’ll turn you purple.”
“Only on the inside.” Scarlet said.
Jeanie said, “They look like raspberries on steroids.”
Scarlet ate another. And then she realized that her fingertips were stained purple from the berry. She picked a handful more and then rolled the berries in her hands. She let the juice go into her skin. She ate another. She said, “When I would walk here with my father, he’d let me do whatever I wanted. Mainly, we ate berries and talked about where we wanted to go in the world but sometimes we’d walk down to the zoo and sneak in after it was closed.”
Jeanie was frowning at Scarlet’s purple palms and discolored fingers. She checked her jacket for a napkin. While she searched she asked, “Is that what we’re doing? Are we going to sneak into the zoo?” She held out the napkin.
Scarlet said, “Only if it’s closed.” She didn’t wipe her hands. She took it and then wrapped the berries Jeanie had refused. She tossed the really damaged ones back into the bushes.
When they arrived there, the gates to the zoo were locked. The entry box where the tickets were sold was empty. A woman passed with a stroller. The light sank into the trees. There was the sound of animals deep in the park but it was quieted by the space and distance. Scarlet opened her arms. She posed and dipped her hips and leaned against the gate. She said, “This part is the hard part. After, we walk with the animals. After, we will be able to stroll as we are meant to stroll. There will be no lines. No families tripping over themselves. No waiting.”
Jeanie was staring up at the top of the gate. Fireflies drifted around her and she waved them away from her face, from her hair, from her shoulders. She said, “What do I do with my jacket.”
Scarlet took it from her and then put it on. “Problem solved,” she said. She took a step back and then grabbed the bars. She pulled herself up and then up higher and then up higher. She used her feet to keep her moving. She was running out of strength in her hands and arms but she was able to swing herself over the top and then slowly she eased down until she jumped to the concrete.
Jeanie was busy shooing the bugs. She said, “I am not doing that.”
Scarlet was breathing heavy and had her hands on her hips. She said, “It wasn’t so bad.”
Jeanie said, “You go to a climbing gym. You competed in gymnastics. You are like a spider person. I drink white wine and run around a fake lake sometimes.”
Jeanie touched the bars. She shook her head. She said, “I’ll wait until you’re done.”
Scarlet took in the situation. She eyed Jeanie. Measured her. She said, “Get on the ground and slide under.”
“The gate. You’re little all over.”
“I’m little where the good lord said.”
“Well, maybe, but when I was little, my father went over the top and I squeezed through under the gate. All you need to do, is breath out all your air and I’ll help pull you through it.”
Jeanie swatted at her legs. She tussled her hair. She looked around only to find more mosquitoes and fireflies. She stomped her foot.
Scarlet said, “It’s nice and breezy over here. Less bugs.”
Jeanie said, “I’ve got to finish an application tonight.” She said, “I want a real job. A real life.” She asked, “Will you help me go over it when we get back?”
“That sounds like something I can do for you.”
Jeanie huffed. She let out a little wail. She got down on the ground and then she exhaled.
She wiggled and Scarlet pulled and soon Jeanie scraped and crawled on through.
They stood at the main path. Jeanie had hair everywhere. Strands were plastered to her cheek and her forehead. She had little bloody scrapes on her knees and on her elbows.
Scarlet took some water into her hands from the water fountain. She applied it to the worst spots and it was then that she thought that Jeanie looked like she might need to give up. But after a moment, she seemed in a better space and so they followed a sign that promised to show them big cats and wolves and species that were more comfortable with the night.
There were only small yellow security lights lighting the walkways. The trees had become canopies of darkness and blackened, blocked shapes. There was the off and on howl of the monkeys. The songs and cries of the birds. The long humble wail of something unknown to them.
Scarlet whispered, “Jaguars only like to walk around at night.”
And Jeanie said, “But they’re in a cage or something.”
Scarlet took her hand. She whispered, “Don’t worry, we probably won’t even see anything.”
They walked past the locked doors of the reptile house and past the plastic picnic tables and over a small wooden bridge and then they were at a large enclosure.
They approached slowly, with small steps and hushed breathing between the two of them.
They stood in front of the informational sign. Jeanie followed the words with her finger. There were large lettered facts about how many remained, what was killing them, where they most liked to live and sleep and walk in trees. It was difficult to see inside the space. It was difficult to see much of anything. There were outlines. Rocks. A tree. A rope attached to a tire. It was a silent place to be.
Scarlet took out the napkin. She opened it. She ate a berry. She held it out to share. Jeanie took it and carefully settled it in her mouth. They took another and another. They ate what remained and then Jeanie went about trying to clean her fingers. She sighed. She held up her hands close to Scarlet. The napkin was useless. Even in the dark, the juice was visible on her skin.
Jeanie decided to protest, she wanted to know where they could go to fix this problem, but before she got it out, there was a loud sound. It was animal. But it was a human-animal. It was a cough; someone was out there coughing and walking and on the way there. They both crouched down. They crawled under the bars and to the front of the enclosure. They sat between the plants there. They grew very small. They waited. And then they saw the light of a flashlight and then it crossed almost over them. The man started to cough again and again and again. He murmured. He grumbled. He said, “Forget this.” And then he walked off sounding sick and exhausted.
They were alone again. They were breathing again. They stood from where they’d hidden themselves. Scarlet whispered, “He might come back around.”
But Jeanie had turned around. She was looking into the glass divider. She took Scarlet’s hand. She squeezed it. Scarlet turned and saw what her roommate saw. They reached back and started to move from where they were. The big cat was at the glass. It was seated. It was higher up than they were. It was watching them move away. In the darkness the yellow of its eyes were beams of energy. They were deep disks of yellow. They were unblinking. They glowed there.
They watched the big cat get up. It walked slowly against the glass. It stopped and then walked slowly back to where it had been. It dipped its head and slid along until it stopped and then it sat again. It watched. And Scarlet and Jeanie watched. And soon the sounds of the night grew more and more active and alive and filled with the songs of those who want to go where they want to go. To return to where they belong.
Calder G. Lorenz is the author of One Way Down (Or Another), his debut novel from Civil Coping Mechanisms.
His writing can be found in sPARKLE & bLINK 2.4, Switchback, Curly Red Stories, FictionDaily, Two Dollar Radio's Noise, Literary Orphans, Crack the Spine, Black Heart Magazine, Litro Magazine, The Forge Literary, The Birds Piled Loosely, New Pop Lit, Devil's Lake, bad pony Magazine, Chicago Literati, and gravel.
* * *
By Robert Pope
My manual typewriter allowed me to enter physically into the act of writing, filling a hundred
pages every couple of weeks until I had a thousand. I took a trip, Scotland this summer, staying
in a castle, walking five miles a day in Highland dress. Back home, I whittled the book into five
hundred pages. Over the following weeks, I drank a dozen bottles of Dominican rum, watching
as many movies as possible. Binge over, I read the manuscript several times, and, in a week or
two, sent it to my editor, Nick Moxley, expecting to hear within two weeks, during which time I
rearranged furniture, purchased paintings for the walls. Weeks passed, three, then four. A letter
from one Joseph Ricci informed me of the death of Moxley, requesting I come to New York to
go over notes. By return, I said I did not entertain notes. He wrote stating he was not accustomed
to accept books without advice; if I would order a ticket, the company would reimburse. I wrote I
would not come to New York, and if required would withdraw the manuscript. In a conciliatory
tone, he offered to visit, arriving on a Wednesday with his briefcase bulging with my manuscript
and his typed notes, which he dropped on the dining room table.
Ricci was a thin man in a cable-knit sweater I envied, tan pants, a camel overcoat. When he took
off his newsboy cap, his hairline began halfway back the top of his head, pulled back on the sides
in a tight, braided pony tail. He wore narrow black shoes, Italian design, which he tied no less
than three times at table. If he was taken aback by my traditional Highland dress or thick beard, it
did not show. He came in the kitchen as I fixed coffee, noticing the traps, cheese baited. “This
old house,” I explained, “a hundred fifty years old, difficult to keep out drafts and vermin. They
don’t bite, but they’re not the only invaders.” I laughed a little.
“I’d been here several months, attributing the creaking in the bedroom ceiling to wind, an old
home settling. One night I heard it on the steps and followed downstairs. I flashed the kitchen
light only to discover a tiny, bent woman, a black shawl over her head and shoulders. She made
no sound scuttling past me. I leaned on a wall to stop my trembling, telling myself she found her
way in during the years it stood empty. I fixed a cheese sandwich, poured a glass of milk, and
took them to the attic, where I found an entrance in one wall no larger than a cat door. She hid
between that wall and the roof.”
“How did you get rid of her?”
“No point evicting her this late date, but I was relieved to know the origin of the sounds.”
We went to the table, where he left the manuscript. He set out a firm preamble, closing in a tone
of formal politeness through which he gave me to understand his notes had no object but to
shape my manuscript into a book of which we could be proud. I reminded him I had a contract
assigning right of approval of any and all editorial alterations.
“I hope you will keep an open mind to the overall effect. If you see their benefit, perhaps you
will consent to a new contract.”
I listened to his suggestions, slight at first, growing to reshape the novel. I thanked him,
requesting he let me simmer overnight. In the meantime, I asked him to accept my hospitality for
the night. Andreas arrived, banging in the kitchen. He set out five bottles of a heady wine while
Joseph and I polished off the Dominican rum. He told stories of New York, editing experiences,
writers met, worked with. I regaled him with hilarious tales of my affairs in Scotland, which he
appreciated more with each glass.
Dinner, reminiscent of the rib cage of a bison, replete with vegetable dishes beyond any
reckoning, was accompanied by wine and laughter. Finally, I carried him and his bag upstairs,
though I stayed up with Andreas, the characteristic beret over his shiny, bald head. A large man,
he recently became interested in cage fighting. Several re-creations culminated in the masterful
thrust that crashed me to the living room floor. After watching him drive off, I dropped on the
couch and fell into a deep sleep, rising to empty my traps of large rodents as Ricci staggered in
the kitchen, bleary-eyed. I gave him two powerful pain killers he washed down with water.
“Good morning, Joseph!” I shouted to cut through his bloodshot eyes and blue swellings. He
could not get enough water, refused breakfast, informing me he must be on his way. He could
nap on the plane, but worried he would not wake to make connection. He set a hand on the table,
lowering himself in a chair. “That creature,” he said, “in the attic? She opened the bedroom door
and stood beside my bed an hour at least, raspy breathing. Eventually she flew away. I lay awake
the longest time. When I did, I saw her flying circles above my head.” His forehead furrowed, a
drop of liquid on the end of his nose. “Thought about my notes?”
“I decided against them, though I appreciate your work, but please stay. Cancel your flight, sleep
out your aches. We’ll have grand times.”
“If you would call a cab?”
After gathering manuscript and such, I gave him a bear hug to let him know how much I
appreciated his visit. He climbed in the cab without looking back. When I mailed a request for a
second visit, he regretted he could not, more work than he could handle. He sent the mock-up of
the cover for Bloody Hands—marvelous. I settled into a new book, intending a mystery to please
my new editor, Joseph Ricci.
Robert Pope has published a novel, Jack's Universe, as well as a collection of stories, Private Acts. He has also published many stories and personal essays in journals, including The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, and Fiction International
* * *
The Prophet of the Martini Lounge
By Curt Saltzman
The old man left the bar and rambled over to the liquor store parking lot, where he stopped and pulled out a cigarette. He stood smoking in the middle of the only lane.
"Let’s go," Paul said. The two boys walked over to where the old man was standing.
"Could you buy us a couple of six-packs?" Paul asked. The other boy, Tommy, had a five dollar bill in his hand.
"Jesus all that water," the old man replied. It was unclear whether he was referring to the subject of beer or not. He focused on something in his own mind, inwardly, creasing his brow and looking down at his loafers for a second or two, before saying, "What’s your poison, boys?" He had one of those spherical bellies, taut and perfectly round, you see on the great inveterate boozers, like he’d swallowed a beach ball.
"Rainier Ale. Two six-packs of the 16 ounce cans, please," Paul said. Tommy held the bank note in front of the old man’s nose, as if his vision might be faulty.
"Never heard of it."
The old man snatched the money out of Tommy’s hand and entered the liquor store. He walked down the central aisle to the back where the refrigerated display cases were situated and opened one of the glass doors, pausing for a long moment like he’d forgotten the precise nature of his mission. The boys remained at a discreet distance and were unable to see exactly what was going on. They’d tried to buy the beer themselves earlier, but they’d been carded by the clerk, a snide young man barely out of adolescence himself.
At last the old man grabbed the two six-packs he’d come in for and returned up front to the check-out counter. The clerk put the beer in a brown paper sack. The old man paid with the fiver and came out the door. He handed the sack to Paul without a word and wandered off in the direction of the bar. There was a bus stop on the other side of the road. The boys went across. The traffic was scarce and each vehicle cruising by, its headlights blazing, seemed a little ominous. As the boys sat down on the wooden bench Paul realized the old man hadn't handed over the change from the five dollar bill. None could be found at the bottom of the sack, either, when Paul peered down into it, searching for what wasn’t there.
"That lush ripped us off for the change," he said, looking around for him. But the old man had disappeared into the Martini Lounge, the ginmill adjacent to the liquor store.
The boys cracked open two beers. The neighborhood was dark and semi-industrial, with a few sinister houses here and there that had scraggly patches of lawn out front circumscribed by low picket fences. Nothing stirred in the vicinity except for a dog that trotted up out of nowhere and started lapping liquid from a stagnant pool that lay on the sidewalk not far from where the boys sat. A medium-sized stray of indeterminate race, it stood beneath the only light standard on the block. There was nothing particularly reassuring about its appearance. The coat was matted in sections and appeared yellowish and sickly under the lurid rays of the lamppost.
"Want to try to invade that bar across the street?" Tommy asked, one eye on the dog.
"Talk about a dive."
They drained their beers, tossing the empties into the storm drain, and walked over to the Martini Lounge, taking two stools at the Formica-topped counter, where a few solitary tipplers cradled their highballs and stared off blankly into space. When the barman moseyed over the boys ordered gimlets and accepted the gin in the well, which happened to be Gordon’s. He didn’t ask for any ID or even look at them twice. The six or seven vinyl booths lined up against one wall of the room were occupied by groups of aging and for the most part intoxicated individuals sitting before the usual clutter of bottles, glasses, and brimming ashtrays.
The gimlets were served and Paul, who was paying for this round, grumbled something about the change. He'd spotted the old man sitting in one of the booths with two drinking buddies. They were shooting back shots with draft beer chasers and chain-smoking like tomorrow was a fairy tale.
"Let’s wait and see what happens," Tommy said. "Maybe he’ll come over with the money. Probably just forgot."
"He didn’t forget, man." Paul hopped down from his stool and went over to the cigarette machine by the toilets, feeding two quarters into the coin slot. He pulled the selection knob for a soft pack of Camel Regulars, which dropped into the silver compartment at the bottom of the device. When he got back to the bar he opened the pack, lit a cigarette with the book of matches he’d fished out of a bowl next to the cash register at some diner, and said: "I don’t like getting ripped off, man."
Tommy was about to reply something neutral and accommodating, but the music interrupted him, an instrumental rendition of the song "Night and Day." The boys hadn’t noticed the upright in a corner of the room with the oversized snifter sitting on its lid half-filled with coins and a few leafy green dollar bills. Now there was a man wearing thick glasses and a paisley shirt whose collar seemed wide even for the period sitting behind the instrument pounding away.
The musical entertainment prompted two women to rise from one of the booths. They paraded over to the small counter standing next to the piano, behind which had been positioned several bar stools, toting their cocktails, handbags, and other paraphernalia, and looking rather encumbered. As they settled into their seats the pianist improvised a trill in the higher registers and the women let go with the kind of hoarse, phlegmy laughter indicative of the chronic nicotine addict. They were both pushing sixty and made-up as heavily as Kabuki actors, with elaborate hairdos that weren’t exactly beehives (and may very well have been wigs) and long fingernails painted the same fire-hydrant red as their lip rouge. When the song came to an end they applauded. They were the only people to applaud and clapped five or six times more or less in unison. The pianist nodded, fired up a skinny cigarette–a Vogue–and picked up the drink he’d placed on the piano lid earlier, a scotch on the rocks that had grown watery from having sat too long. He siphoned it off in one go. After glancing around him for a moment while puffing away at the Vogue, he laid the cigarette into the groove of a glass ashtray and began interpreting "These Foolish Things."
In the interval between songs Paul had caught the attention of the barman and ordered another round. Tommy got this one. The boys were flush tonight because they’d just been paid by the supermarket, where they both worked the late shift bagging groceries, their first jobs since graduating high school. Paul had been considering going over to the old man’s booth and demanding the change but was uncertain of the exact amount owed. He wanted to get the details straight beforehand, turning to Tommy.
"I forgot how much a six-pack of Rainier costs at that liquor store."
"A dollar seventy-five."
"How much you give that guy already?"
"A five dollar bill."
"So he owes us a buck fifty."
"It’s no big deal." Tommy would have preferred letting the question of the missing change slide.
The pianist started to attack the bridge of "These Foolish Things." He’d switched on his microphone, singing the two initial verses in a reedy tenor just flat enough to produce a minor sensation of malaise. In the third verse with which he terminated the song Tommy found poetic the line about "how the ghost of you clings." As the pianist’s concluding chord faded into the ambient din the two women clapped again. But this time the old man stood up in his booth, the edge of the tabletop eating into his spindly thighs, and joined them. "'Night and Day', 'Night and Day'," he shouted. A Pall Mall straight dangled from his lips, and the long ash was shaken loose, dropping directly into his glass of beer, where it floated on a cushion of foam and would shortly be absorbed by the old man’s alimentary tract. "Only you beneath the moon and under the sun," he crooned. The voice was surprisingly pleasant and true, a suave baritone à la Billy Eckstine.
"He just played it," Paul muttered to himself.
It had grown late already, a boozy despondency pervaded certain hearts, and two large groups of patrons vacated their respective booths, heading for the exit. They piled through the heavy door, which failed to close completely behind them. It stuck open on the bunched-up rubber doormat, allowing a swirling gust of air to sweep into the room like a spirit manifestation at a séance. Some cocktail napkins took flight. Outside it was the deluge. The street had flooded nearly to the top of the curbing. There was enough water there to navigate a skiff down to the next intersection. The old man, who knew his way around a ship from his days in the merchant marine, had started to inquire if anyone were equipped with a sailing vessel, but Paul cut him off.
"Yeah, where’s our change?" he snapped.
"What’s that you say?"
"We never got our dollar fifty back."
"Change," the old man repeated.
"For the beer, the change for the beer."
"Oh, beer. Hold on."
The old man made his way over to where the boys sat on their stools. There was a certain commotion and delay because one of the booth's occupants, for whom achieving the orthostatic position had become a complicated affair, had to stand in order to let him out.
"The change for the beer from the five bucks we gave you," Paul explained to the old man once he’d made it up to the bar. "A dollar fifty."
"No big deal," Tommy said. "We looked in the sack. Maybe it fell out in the parking lot or something."
"In the sack," the old man said. "Not sure about this."
He produced his Pall Malls, offering the boys a cigarette. Tommy took one from the offered pack even though he hardly smoked but Paul refused, shaking his head like a petulant child. "I’m getting your next round," the old man declared, digging into a pocket of his trousers. He leaned on the bar, one hand waving a ten dollar bill in the air. The barman arrived and the old man pointed at the boys and said, "Hit these two gentleman, Bob. And a Dewar’s straight up for yours truly."
"Righto," said the bartender, who had the kind of cool that had gone out of style some years ago.
The drinks were served and soon the old man drifted away like some inanimate object carried off by the current. His two cronies had both nodded off. A clock hung on the wall above their bowed heads, and now that the crowd had thinned and the music had stopped you could hear it ticking. It was a big round clock with a black casing. The circular dial glowed in the dark like the full moon of time itself.
"Last call for alcohol," the barman cried.
The pianist came up and sat down a few stools away from the boys. Bob slid him another scotch on the rocks. He fiddled with a cocktail umbrella while he drank, twirling the toothpick stem between his thumb and index. He looked even older and wearier at close range, a veteran of the night disabused of romantic notions. Suddenly there was an explosion of light and the bartender was over on the other side of the bar herding everyone in the direction of the exit. It all occurred so quickly the boys forgot the sack of Rainier Ale they’d placed at their feet.
The old man, who happened to be the last remaining client in the Martini Lounge, left the toilets, where he’d pissed and studied his reflection in the mirror, trying to recognize himself after all these years, and spotted the sack on the floor. He scooped it up with the drunkard's sly aplomb on his way out the door as Bob the barkeep, now occupied with what he liked best about his profession, wiped down in silence the gleaming galaxy of surfaces with his archetypical soft white rag.
The old man drank a can or two of the Rainier while observing the weather from the doorway. The rain fell in long, transparent chains, enslaving the world, but he himself felt boundless and unbound, free even from the constraints imposed by freedom itself. "Jesus all that water," he said for the second time that night, as if this entire torrent were vain given it wasn’t pure hootch pouring down from the sky. And although he lodged in a room not far from the Martini Lounge he took off walking in search of another, unknown destination he would eventually discover, after finishing all the beer, at the end of an unlit and uninviting alley. He pulled a flattened cardboard box out of the blue dumpster sitting there, curled up on it like a cat under the shelter of an overhang, and was gone.
By this time the boys had driven back to the apartment they shared and realized they’d left the Rainier Ale at the bar. And Paul was sure somehow--he would have bet his life on the fact--that the old man, having kept their change, had managed to make off with their beer, too. It burned him up. He thought about it after he went to bed as he lay awake hearing the roaring drum of water on the rooftop. Finally he rose and went to the window overlooking the courtyard. He smoked cigarette after cigarette before the blurred pane of glass, the hours slipped away towards a dreary dawn, but it seemed the rain would never cease.
Curt Saltzman was born and raised in Los Angeles. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine, Sou'wester, The Bitter Oleander, Into the Void, Epiphany, and elsewhere. He lives in France.
* * *
We Never Know
By Nadya Alekseeva
We never know
Behind the corner.
We never see
Through the design
And forget the lessons.
We’re at the peak,
But next sec
Comes the fall.
We mix the joy,
In one cocktail.
And life hangover
Out of blue.
In a whisper
‘I love you’...
In bitter reprimand
Of memories so sweet.
You finally see
The hidden truth
Is no more free
Is always there...
Nadya Alekseeva comes from St Petersburg, Russia. She teaches at the university and in her spare time is engaged in translating science fiction novels. "Telling stories is my passion", she says. "A good story is a way to make a person happy and make this world a little bit better".
* * *
By Daniel David
The rapist sat there, right there, in art history, beneath
my dimmed ambiance, my droning lecture on antiquity.
He was any other kid, a wiry, bony-hide he-goat Pan,
tanned from landscaping Ohio Arcadia, a young man
finding his way, a bit squirrely, surly at times, certainly
harmless, right? who chatted up, charmed the girls around
him, his small-talk harem. The sly bad-boy played the pipes,
and for an instant, as a man, I liked his swagger.
But I wondered, my instinct nagging, What was it, his
obsession? Dear women, had I known – your peril, your peril.
Then came his mug-shot, his arrest, his victim, his news.
My scholar advanced, cum laude, finally his distinction,
from mere voyeur at the mall to an intimate brutality.
I wondered, was it the Greeks? It must have been the Greeks.
The curves of Aphrodites enticed, smooth marble ravishing,
the chiseling, the polishing, the chiseling, the polishing.
Pergamum’s lecherous satyrs were his validation. Ogling
Poussin’s Sabines, Ingres’ seductive Odalisques, came to mind.
Do not romanticize his violence. Did he go directly
from art to her condo? Was there a knife, a pistol, a fist,
a powerful grip around her neck? Witness her tally of bruises,
her horrific array of hues, the garish photo flash, the swabs,
his sticky violation, her kit, her kit, her kit. Dear woman,
I regret a paucity of beauty, a dearth of aesthetics.
Daniel David is a writer, artist and professor living along the southern shore of Lake Erie in North America. His poems have appeared widely in a number of venues across the United States, in Canada and the United Kingdom. His publications also include articles in the Journal of Creative Behavior; chapbooks Close to Home and Two Buddha; and his novel, Flying Over Erie.
* * *
Through the Tall Grass
By Allen Forrest
Hard to believe, these things usually are,
and if you've never experienced anything like this,
you won't believe it,
but I do.
My father told me one evening over dinner,
he'd never told a soul before,
not even mother, when she was alive.
It happen years ago, I was very young and
mother had taken me to visit my cousins in Canada.
Dad was on his way to meet us, but decided to take a detour,
he decided to drive north, cross the border near Vancouver,
then drive east to meet us in the Okanogan.
He traveled by freeway, until he got to Canada,
then highway, then came the reason for going this way,
My father knew something of his father,
very distant memories,
a story his mother, my grandmother, related to him when he was just a boy,
a boy my age, say 8 or 9.
One of the neighbors reported the same story to him.
There had been a disagreement between my father's mother
and her husband, the grandfather I never knew.
The disagreement became very heated, she never said
what it was about, my dad never knew,
but soon enough my grandfather was chasing my grandmother
with a carving knife around the yard.
Some neighbors came to the rescue, stopped him.
They were about to call the police, but grandmother
made a deal with grandfather,
if he would admit he was mentally disturbed,
instead of going to jail for attempted murder,
he would be committed to a sanitarium.
He said he would rather have that, be committed.
Papers were signed and he was sent away.
When my dad came home that night, he was told by his mother,
“No more daddy, no more.”
My dad was just a little boy and he didn't understand, but
had to accept the story, accept the loss of his father.
The memories of his dad were good. His dad always helped
him with his schoolwork, especially mathematics.
He would help him every night at the dinner table.
But now no more daddy to help him with his schoolwork.
Dad said he cried himself to sleep many times.
He missed his dad something terrible.
His school grades went down.
Dad had crossed the border and was driving east of Vancouver now,
going in the direction of the sanitarium,
of which his father had been committed.
On the front seat beside him was his father's old shaving tackle,
he was bringing it to him, his razor, mug and shaving brush,
kinda like a gift,
or maybe to help prove his connection.
Then he had seconds thoughts.
Maybe he wouldn't want to see his father again.
He'd grown up without him, he'd had to.
Why should he disturb him and himself
by digging up the past?
Should he go and inquire about him at the main office?
He kept driving, east, towards the location of the sanitarium.
He'd heard very little about what had happened to his father.
Only, for the last 30 years, he'd stayed there in the institution.
They let him work in the fields. They had a kind of a farm
where they grew some crops and he liked to work the land.
So the medical staff let him work the land.
Dad was so close now,
he could see a large institution just to the left ahead of him.
He came to an intersection and stopped at a red light.
It was a very warm day, both front windows were rolled down.
There was a sound, like rustling.
Through the tall grass came a man, an old man,
walking up from the fields,
he was coming out of the tall grass right
by dad's car.
They saw each other.
Dad asked, “Could you use a lift?”
The old man said he could and thanked him as he got in.
The light changed and dad drove toward the sanitarium.
The old man looked down at the shaving tackle.
My dad said “Are these yours?”
The old man picked them up.
A faint smile came to his lips, “Yes. Where did you get these?”
“I'm one of your sons.”
They drove quietly. They didn't speak.
They looked at one another.
There was only curiosity, a gentle quiet curiosity between them.
They arrived in front of the sanitarium.
My dad stopped the car.
My grandfather, thanked his son for the lift and returning
his shaving tackle.
They said goodbye and my grandfather got out of the car.
My father drove slowly away.
He looked in the rear view mirror and saw his father
go inside the sanitarium.
He didn't try to contact him again.
He never inquired in later years if he was still alive.
It is strange to me to act in this way,
but to my father, he couldn't do anything else.
Maybe he was afraid of knowing too much.
Maybe he was afraid some sort of mental disturbance ran in the family.
He doesn't like to talk about it,
but one night over dinner he told me the story.
He asked me about God, was he watching us all the time?
How could he just happen to be at the same place and time,
after all those years,
and run right into his father.
Indeed, how could such a thing happen?
But it did.
Allen Forrest is a writer and graphic artist for covers and illustrations in literary publications and books, the winner of the Leslie Jacoby Honor for Art at San Jose State University's Reed Magazine for 2015, and who's Bel Red landscape paintings are part of the Bellevue College Foundation's permanent art collection in Bellevue, WA. He lives in Vancouver, BC, Canada.
* * *
Three Poems by Sandra Kolankiwicz
After an Extended Illness
After an extended illness, your
children begin to mature. The one
you never would have expected
behaves badly. The faces of your
beloveds come in closer, others as
remote as through glass, archetypes
or clichés walking around in
bacterial skins under alkaline skies.
Your body becomes as soft and
transitory as butter, succumbing to
temperature or stiffening for no
reason but the weather. Your bones
get in the way. Of all your
possessions, your telephone is the
most important—after the garden,
of course, that you cannot own and
which may even possess you
because without daily effort it
disappears, the labor of someone
full of hope in a state of denial.
Update on the Epidemic
I have been trying to get back to you
for days. But what with church and work and my
mother, not to mention my father got
married again in the nursing home. I
am happier for him than you might think.
After all, he wasn’t there even when
he was there. So glad to be a part of
the world now we know what is wrong with it
repairing just a matter of time like
it always is and we forever do.
Our Family Crest
So we created our first family
tradition: to pass on something in the
home we were leaving for the next tenant,
the first time a paper towel holder,
hand-painted with hearts, the next a conch shell
night-light that made a room rosy. We lay
a cross-stitch of a crane on silk across
a kitchen counter on our way out the
door, awarding something we were fond of
every time until for three seasons
in a row we moved monthly so bequeathed
odd things, like a six pack of Trident or
the small head of a lion. By then we
were arguing. Instead of setting out
a gift, we were discarding. One of us
could see it, the other could not, which made
for long days in the car with nowhere to
go, easy to nod off, sleeping better than
letting come what would and releasing the
rest, the small oath on our family crest.
Sandra Kolankiewicz is a repeat contributor to the Foliate Oak, and her works have also been accepted by Apple Valley, Red Savina, Whale Road, Grey Sparrow, and London Magazine.
* * *
Savagery Trio by Jessica Mehta
The Weight of Secrets
Secrets weigh a tremendous lot
so you have to be real sure
you can bear the brunt.
And that they’re worth it—like a child
who cries something so fierce
you rock them to quiet, something
like complacency. Heavy burdens
only strengthen tendons, grow
muscles, densify bones so long
before the joints give out. I’ve carried
so many pinky swears they’ve built colonies
on my back. A dowagers hump
of things I’ll never tell, words packed
with a blistering power my tongue
would burn before those syllables
can trickle fire down my chin.
My Body, My Self
I’ve put you through so much, and still
you hold me up—shaky
legs and bumpy arms. The years I fed you scraps
at best, you lapped up every crumb, used
each speck to carry on. The times
I beat you stupid, beyond
the ability to stand, flinch from the traumas
or keep fists above breastbone. Remember
the time I slipped you the ecstasy, only
it was some kind of speed-meth monster
that left us lurching in the Atlanta heat? Me,
I would have left me by now. Long ago.
you’ve stayed, solid. Through the disrespect,
the slaps, the ridicule and pummeling
abuses. And not once did you break. Give up
for good. Not gather all your everythings,
but stood tall on too long legs
and screamed, demanding for more.
Summer in Lorraine
Hot air balloons can only crash--
it took me fifteen years and five thousand
miles to watch nylon
candies en flambé
fall like parade castoffs
from the sky. In open fields, hands
sticky with crepe drippings, the lot of us
craned our necks and clutched our phones
waiting with hungry impatience
for the cascade of exquisite collisions.
Jessica (Tyner) Mehta is a Cherokee poet, novelist, and storyteller. She’s the author of six collections of poetry including the forthcoming: Constellations of My Body and Savagery, Secret-Telling Bones, Orygun, What Makes an Always, and The Last Exotic Petting Zoo as well as the novel The Wrong Kind of Indian. She’s been awarded the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund Prize in Poetry, and numerous poet-in-residencies posts including positions at Hosking Houses Trust and Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-Upon-Avon, England, Paris Lit Up in France, and the Acequia Madre House in Santa Fe, NM. Visit Jessica’s author site here.
* * *
When an Angel Falls
By Matt Nagin
When an angel falls
from the sky
I scoop to pick it up--
the halo I pawn
for hard cash
wings I pedal
dirt cheap on Ebay
a white costume
with all that
I wear on Halloween
or tell my steady girlfriend
into a makeshift
and throw into
just because I
can and because
as the dawn breaks
another angel will fall
and I have my own
pathways to the light
my own wardrobe
with which to meet
Matt Nagin is a writer, educator, actor, filmmaker and standup comedian. His poetry has been published in The Charles Carter, Grain Magazine and Arsenic Lobster, among other markets. His first poetry collection, Butterflies Lost Within The Crooked Moonlight, was released in 2017 and has obtained very strong reviews.
* * *
By Alejandro Pérez
Empty, empty men. Many of whom I have befriended,
of whose endeavors I am a part.
Whose laughter has given me nights of insignificant rejoice,
if that’s what one might call it.
Rage, a banal storm at sea,
drowned out by the walking of the citizens.
One step, another step, and then another.
There is no time to stop for rage.
There is no time to stop for anything.
Everything has turned meaningless.
And yet, we must keep moving forward, like soldiers,
with intensity, and courage, and enthusiasm
in this empty world of ours.
In this empty world of empty men
where flowers are planted just like corpses are buried,
with the same indifference.
Where shattered vases are the same as shattered dreams,
just things to be swept up, thrown out, and forgotten.
But maybe in some paradise,
somewhere far away,
all the tombstones just say
Here lies a Dreamer.
His dreams were more important
than his name.
Alejandro Pérez is a Creative Writing major at Emory University. Being part American and part Guatemalan, he was raised in a bilingual/bicultural home. He is caught between two cultures, just as he is caught between his desire to live in the real world and in the world of his imagination.
* * *
All Hail the God of Plastic
By Eric Day
My father sat me down one evening in his den, my 9th-grade report card lying on the table beside him like a piece of sad fruit.
“Look, Eric,” he said, in his baggy sweats and threadbare undershirt. “These grades tell me you have some priority issues. This business of following every trend that comes along, it’s got to stop.” His eye traced the leg of my candy-striped painter pants, then went up to the red Chinese character for “party” emblazoned on the front of my black sleeveless hoodie. He sighed before going on. “So from this point forward, I want you to hang out with the biggest nerds, the biggest geeks you can find. Maybe something will rub off.”
He wasn’t going to remember any of this until at least the next report card, so I agreed.
My mom was more sympathetic to my cause. Due to budget cuts brought about by my declining grades, though, she was forced to take me to stores like Penny’s and Mervyn’s. So instead of a Polo pony, I got a knight on horseback holding a flag. In place of an Izod alligator, a fire-breathing dragon. But still I dreamed—I was a teenager living in rural Oregon who only wished to look like a Californian.
That’s why when we were visiting my grandma one day, I dipped my hand in her purse when she wasn’t looking and snatched her Visa card right out.
The next day I took the train to downtown Portland, where Pioneer Courthouse Square was teeming with holiday life. I stood on the bricks engraved with all the names of the generous citizens of the city, the gigantic Christmas tree standing tall against the overcast afternoon sky. I was wearing low-top Chuck Taylors without socks, bleached Levi’s, and a white tennis sweater with a red polo underneath, collar up. The crowds flowed around me, eager and carefree, and I took my time proceeding, their perfumes and bags of purchases filling me with warm holiday cheer in the Oregon cold. I felt for Grandma’s Visa in my back pocket. I was ready to do some shopping.
I opened Nordstrom’s tall glass doors. The smells and sounds of a season rich in brand names and glitz followed me to the Steinway’s merry carols and all the way up the escalators to the men’s department. I stood on the gleaming floors, just taking it all in and trying not to think about getting arrested. I walked until I was within range of the watch counter, which I approached casually, like buying a time piece was only incidental, even a bother. I chose a Swatch Watch, Swiss-made, plastic and neon yellow. The balding sales clerk took it out for me. He seemed to be keeping a close eye on my hands, which were not quite steady. In my palm the watch felt like a live thing, a rare animal that may slink away in a heartbeat.
“Just a spare,” I said, catching myself. “Left my regular one at home with all the others.”
The man ran the card through his sliding gadget. These were the days before instant credit checks or digital scanners. Merchants still used the clunky swipe machines with carbons. Handing me the slips, I signed, “Bradley Day,” thinking this would throw off the scent—a common thief attempting to appear as family, and with a first name I believed sufficiently upper crust should anyone doubt my look of wan entitlement.
I refused a bag and put it right on. “I love Christmas time,” I said, light-headed, and the clerk smiled and tore off my receipt. I made a show of folding it carefully around the Visa card and putting both in my back pocket. I walked away as calmly as I could.
And that was it. Sirens had not flashed. I wasn’t frog-marched out to a squad car and driven in for questioning. But if I’d been reserved with a 30-dollar watch, I left all further traces of modesty in the dust and plowed forth like the L.A.-snob I wished I was.
By the time I’d filled three big Nordstrom bags, I was feeling nauseous and hot going down the escalators, my head swimming with relentless carols and winking sales clerks. Perfume girls smiled insanely as I passed them on my way toward the exits. I stepped outside and just breathed for a moment. The heavy click-clack back and forth of the credit card machine pounded in my brain. Late afternoon’s waning light set off the traffic and the illuminated trees. Storefronts beckoned, one after another, with a warm glow. I staggered to the center of the Square and dropped my bags, hardly knowing what was inside of them. The huge towering fir, covered all over with colors, reached higher than City Hall. Strangers passed back and forth, laughing and talking, full of commerce and love.
From a nearby boom box I caught the end of Duran Duran’s “Rio.” The last light showed clouds moving against an autumn blue so vivid it stung my eyes, and then suddenly my stomach flipped. I saw myself coming down to breakfast the next day, all ready for school in a brand new Ralph Lauren trench coat and bright penny loafers. How could I ever explain such an overnight transformation? If nothing else, I needed to get rid of this card and create an alibi. I needed to be careful doing so, and I only had a couple hours before I had to be home.
The boom box was fronted by two hacky sack players in their early twenties. Behind them stood the famous street sign, showing distances to cities and countries around the world. Who cares if I couldn’t find Rio? Without an alibi, I would need only to choose another city, charge a plane ticket, and at age 15 turn my back on my family and everyone forever. Live somewhere distant and anonymous, beautifully tragic in my incredibly stylish clothes…
The song changed to “Billie Jean,” its synthesized beats and the shoppers’ feet on the bricks providing a kind of rhythm that fed my feverish brain. Soon, an idea gradually took shape. I checked the time on my Swatch Watch, straightened my raised collar, and took a deep breath. I stepped near the two hacky sack players, letting them regard me and my large Nordstrom bags until their sack dropped with a dull splat.
“Are you interested in an idea I have?” I blurted out. Noticing their skepticism, and looking around first to see if the coast was clear, I held up my plastic. “I need to get rid of this,” I said.
One of the guys, whose hair was tweaked all over his head like sprouts on a potato, strode over and took the card from my hand and studied it with excessive, even indecent, interest. Then he backed away, looking at me the whole time as he moon-walked over to his friend, who stood a foot taller and wore a white track suit. His feet were thrust into sparkling-new, unlaced Nike high-tops. My choice could be perfect—he was definitely a kindred spirit, I thought. He took the Visa from Potato Sprouts, who slid away to dance the robot for an audience, it seemed, of zero, so comfortable was he in his skin. He couldn’t have weighed more than a hundred pounds. The bigger guy looked from the card and to me and back to the card. It wasn’t every day he was propositioned by a skinny white kid, I realized, so I tried to come even cleaner. I walked right up to him. Still holding the Visa up before his eyes, he shut off the Michael Jackson and put his free hand in his pocket.
“It’s my grandma’s,” I said, and showed him my school I.D. with my face and signature on it. He eyed it, briefly. “See, we have the same last name. I took it from her. I got all this stuff with it. I just need someone to use it while I’m at home. Then you can chuck it in the river for all I care. But you have to give me an hour or two. For an alibi, you know?”
More back and forth with the eyeballs. More robot from the other guy, eyes bugging, electric charges rippling through his slinky limbs.
“You want us to do what?” the bigger guy said. “You crazy.”
He handed back the card. “Come with me and I’ll show you,” I said. “One item each, I buy. Just so you can see how easy it is. Anything you want, it’s yours. I promise.”
They didn’t so much agree as laugh and hoot, the smaller one deflating like a balloon before straightening by degrees as though by unseen links and pulleys. But in the end—leaving the boom box in the care of a bearded man sitting on flattened cardboard with a puppy on a rope—they followed, swaggering and popping, all the way to the doors of Nordstrom. Once inside the glittery establishment—carols playing, perfume wafting, crystal glinting—they stuck close by, their bluster dissolving with each new set of shimmering counters. We rode the escalator up. I stole a glance behind me; they stood stock still. They smelled of cigarettes and Brut cologne.
We entered the men’s section and I watched the two approach the hangers and stacks very slowly. They perused the merchandise with a shy daintiness, as though each touch might set off bells or expose the trap I’d set for them. I felt a strange power as I showed them all the sweaters of the season. Cashmere, cotton, hand-knit wool, I explained.
“Grab one,” I said. “On me. I promise.”
Finally, the big guy chose a red crewneck blend, shrugging acceptance in the mirrors as he held it across his broad chest. I found Potato Sprouts holding a pink V-neck of pure silk with a black stripe around the cuffs and collar.
“Nice choice,” I said.
“It’s okay,” he said, and draped it over his arm.
We proceeded to the counter, where he also laid down a pair of large sheepskin mittens.
“For grandma,” he said, without a note of irony.
The clerk took us in at a glance, and I made a show of being burdened by my already-bought bags as I fished out the plastic from my front pocket. He hesitated a second longer before accepting my card, but that was it. He ran the purchase through the clunky machine and I signed “Bradley Day” in plain sight. I grabbed the receipt, let the two gentlemen take up their bags, and then we were out of there.
Outside in the brisk air, we stood under the marquee. The holiday crowds flowed past us like schools of salmon eager now to find their homes and disappear into clouds of sand. Dusk was on its last legs and I felt a little weak myself. I handed over the card and the slip with old Bradley’s name on the dotted line. It took the bigger guy a moment, with all those people crowding in, to actually take the stuff. But he did, and then I was free.
“Now you’re Bradley Day,” I said, an idiotic smile pasted across my pale face. “You can use it all you want. I promise. Go nuts! Just give me an hour to get home and show myself.”
He held the card and did not look away from me. Behind him, Potato Sprouts put on the mittens and raised his hands in the air, like he was going to slap a beach ball or else receive a benediction.
“All hail the god of plastic,” I heard him say right before my train screeched and hissed behind me.
“You’re Bradley Day!” I said over the noise. “You’re Bradley Day!”
I got on the MAX and sat by the first empty window seat I found. I set my bags in the vacant spot beside me. As the train waited, taking on more of the holiday-laden, I watched Potato Sprouts put on his sweater as carefully as though it were made of ash. Once the train lurched forward, the bigger guy found me, those bright schools of fish still flitting by him in silver and rainbow colors, and our eyes locked until the last possible second. I saw the Square go by in a flash and then the train was going over a bridge, the water below deep and black, the lights of the city swaying on its surface.
I settled in for the ride, putting my arm around my pile of bags and letting the train’s movements and sounds soothe me into a forgetful reverie. All hail the god of plastic, I thought, and smiled at my reflection in the window and at all the other smiling people, secrets in their laps and treasures at their feet. In fact, the place was so lit up, our reflections so bright against the night, that the darkness we all were hurling through could hardly be imagined.
Eric Day lives and writes in Tempe, Arizona. He is currently working on a nonfiction book of narrative essays about growing up in rural Oregon, called "Raised by Trees."
* * *
Can't Keep These Things Forever
By Kevin Richard White
My mother’s old shit, my grandfather’s Navy letters to my grandmother. I’m listing these
things off to my brother like chapters of a book we were supposed to read.
“Why do I keep all of this?” I said.
He wasn’t sure either. He was only half paying attention to me though. I sat in my closet,
leaning against the wall. I took a pull of the Basil Hayden.
I sighed and started to sift through the letters that Pop wrote to Grammy. I was lost in a
new place - the fifties, her smoking a cigarette in Sarasota. I’m back to Sinatra with the wind
hitting the sand until my brother says something I can’t ignore.
“I think maybe you’ve had a few.”
I look at the bourbon. He just doesn’t get it, I think. I turn back to the chicken scratch. I
remember shaking his hand not even two years ago. Going to visit at the cemetery isn’t the same.
“I can’t believe he made the ship’s coffee with saltwater that one time,” I said.
My brother does not respond. I am sure he wrote me off for the night.
“You should care about this,” I said. But nothing.
I put the letters away and stumble upon my great grandfather’s baseball scrapbook. Born
a natural first baseman, he compiled a decent career before Roosevelt called for war. He left for
Europe and never came home, dying from shrapnel wounds. I see my face in him and I start to
think about the things I would say to him. I mostly would settle on the topic of sacrifice, but I
know my tongue wouldn’t even know how to begin to pronounce the word.
My brother yells something from his room.
“What?” I said.
“Get your cat outta here.”
I get up, bringing the glass along, my feet lighter than normal. I stand in the doorway of
my brother’s room, and sure enough, Dillinger is planted like a loaf on my brother’s chest,
blocking him from his laptop. I walk over, lift him off and he scurries away. My brother does not
thank me. I walk out of the room, shutting his door as well. I look down the hallway and
Dillinger is staring at me.
“You don’t get it,” I tell him. I go back into the room and sit in the closet.
I put the scrapbook away because I don’t want to rip any of the ancient clippings. One
day, I tell myself as I look at the last few sips of the bourbon, I’ll copy these letters. One day is
the mantra of this generation, one day I’ll enter the world of the beautiful. One day, I say to
myself, and I decide to go for a manly swallow and it all goes down, warming my stomach but
fucking with my head.
My brother says something I can’t hear.
I sigh and I open the box where my mother’s craft projects lay. Her stencils. Her pictures
of angels. Her blankets and knitted things. Her brief burst of life that happened to coincide with
mine. The smell or the touch or the weight doesn’t mean shit. It’s the fact that it happened after I
was born that means what it does to me. It’s the fact that her hands created the objects that now I look at when she’s dead. It’s why I believe in forever.
I know that I can’t get rid of these things, but it’s impossible. I can’t keep these things
forever. But, kids, I say. I’m going to have kids, right? I have to give them these things that they
won’t use. I have to give them the blankets and pieces of a great life. I have to show them the
stencils. I will tell them the stories that are really just a blur, and they won’t care. But I keep
them because there is no other way. I said this to my brother who’s hiding behind the door. I tell
him he should care.
He says something but I can’t hear him.
I sigh and stand up and grab the glass. One day, I said to the wall again. One day, I said
to the cat. One day, I said to myself as I was trying to stand up and be a responsible person.
Kevin Richard White is the author of the novels The Face Of A Monster and Patch Of Sunlight. His work has been published by Akashic Books, Sundog Lit, Crack The Spine, Dime Show Review, Lunch Ticket, Aji Magazine, and Ghost Parachute among others. He lives in Pennsylvania.
* * *
By Clifton Bates
“Claudine, toss me that wine cork, will ya?”
She picks it off the table and lobs it across the room to Harv. He awkwardly reaches out with his right hand as if to catch it, but he exaggeratingly misses it. But he has his left hand well placed down by his knee, and he snags it with ease. When he sees the startled look on her face, he holds out the cork between his thumb and forefinger, flashes a big smile, hugs her and says, “Don’t want you to go getting bored, Baby-kins.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll never get bored around you Harv.” They hug and coo and start preparing dinner together. They’ve been a very happy couple for nigh on six years now.
Sometimes when driving down the road there’ll be a street going off to the left. Harv will accelerate and make motions with both hands as if he is quickly turning the steering wheel to make an abrupt, impossible left turn in front of oncoming traffic, but his hands just slip over the wheel and he keeps going straight. This gives rise to a short gasp from Claudine and a quick, instinctive lunge of her hand to the dashboard for protection. She has the same reaction no matter how many times Harv does this worn out little prank. Harv then squeezes her knee, grins and says, “Don’t want you getting bored, Honey Dear.”
It was a spring evening: beautiful outside. Harv stepped out onto the deck after dinner and the screen door shut behind him. He could hear Claudine pouring a couple glasses of wine to bring out. He stretched and gave a lazy yawn at which time a soaring black fly swooped down and scooted right into his mouth. He felt it buzz around behind his closed lips as Claudine pushed open the door carrying the wine.
Harv instinctively leaned over with a look of ardor, put his arm around her and kissed her passionately, arousing her to open her lips which allowed the fly to buzz on over into her warm, moist mouth. He pulled away and was just about to utter his words of not wanting Sweetie-hon to get bored when she dropped the wine, vomited on the deck, turned and ran back inside the house where she proceeded to pack her things, move away, never kiss another person the rest of her life and then die alone a spinster about fifteen years later.
Clifton Bates, Alaska resident for forty-four years involved with Native education as a teacher, administrator, and university professor. Published a variety of plays, poetry, drawings, fiction, and education articles over the years. He co-authored the book, Conflicting Landscapes, American Education/Alaska Natives. He continues with his writing in Chugiak, Alaska
* * *
Zygmunt (and other pieces)
By Daniel Roy Connelly
As arranged, I met Hämäläinen in the sauna after work. He nodded as I entered before breaking into a sort of smile because I had thought to bring him a cold beer. There followed a period of intense silence during which we drank our beer and stared at the stove. Occasionally, Hämäläinen would get up to pour water on the stones, at other times he spoke, saying, it’s your turn now, Järvinen. After 30 minutes I felt that Hämäläinen was getting ready to say something substantial, he looked at me, and away, and at me again with his rock-solid, below-zero face. A slight tension rose as sweat poured down us like something I can’t explain. Järvinen, he began, I don’t know if I’ve ever told you, but I have a daughter with the mayor’s wife. This was hard enough to consider and compounded by the fact that right at that very moment who should walk in throwing his towel to one side if not Jackson, the mayor. I had no idea of the enmity that lay between them, but it became obvious when the first thing Hämäläinen said was, Jackson, I fucked your wife like a pig last night. Now look here, said Jackson, I’ll not put up with personal abuse during sauna-time. I have come to think away from my current woes, or perhaps to confront them in a more conducive sauna environment, clearly currently unavailable. At this he hit Hämäläinen over the head with the ladle. Hämäläinen responded by smashing his bottle of beer into Jackson’s face, which made him stumble, fall briefly onto the stove where his flesh sizzled, and drop dead on the planked floor; an extraordinary sight, I must say, naked men damaging one another for old time’s sakes in a sauna leading directly to a manslaughter. Again, there ensued a period of intense silence while we looked at the body still bleeding in the steam. Järvinen, I haven’t been to a funeral in ten years, said Hämäläinen, out of the blue. I’ve been closer to my own than any other. Besides, mayors’ wives have the worst reputation for fucking in all Europe, he said, climbing over Jackson’s steaming corpse on the way to bring us another beer.
Kaznozayenev, who used to chop wood in half for a living, got into parliament. On his first day, he had no idea which building to enter, and he hates mosques waking him up at 5am, do you hear me, Horváth? he said to me before meeting the press. When his time came to speak in the inner chamber, Kaznozayenev proposed a bill to turn national forests into corporations, because he hated flying squirrels, they were a country-wide nuisance and an all-round vote winner, though it must be said he was at times hard to follow, he needed a little training and some words. Kaznozayenev really missed the saw-mill, he continued, but there’s all types of niggers and Muslims coming into the country and all they do is crouches and yells, he yelled to the packed room. He read a book once, it was the Bible, but he stopped when he came to the flying squirrel. Imagine swan in front of you, he said, sweeping an arm before us in the assembled chamber, protected swan, such beautiful, so white. Flying squirrels must not be protected in this way, swan’s way, because they’re evil. He was lining up the Muslims after this, he said, the nigger ones first, as word came from an aid he’d been offered the education portfolio.
(For Luke Kennard)
Trouble had been brewing for some time. Both halves of the street lay claim to the chain-link fence that stretched its length straight down the middle. Clans had come together. Bad breath spread ill-feeling. The enmity went as far back as the opening days of the bloody Hodgson/Oyuunchimeg dispute and the fear was the factional fighting that marred so many lives forever would return to blight the current generation of home owners in the street. Or that the current generation would turn out to be the blighters. Disappointingly, both sides dug in; each demanded total control over the barrier that separated them. On the one, Takahashi had hung a flag out of his window with a big ‘Ours!’ written on it, while on the other, Singh and de Vries had persuaded Van von Van and Kipchumba to let them use their apartment’s flat roof as a vantage point. Things are not looking good, Zygmunt, ‘Ndrago said to me down at the end of the fence where the crossroads met to various parts of town. Chen had bought a catapult and Turkit at number twenty-three had invested in a BB gun. Truth is, things got out of hand immediately, insults were traded, a stone flew, and both parties rushed to the clanking divide to grab whatever they could of their opponents, to spit at them and call them foul names, for example Ingerglott a toilet seat by Chobkovsky, Ağaoğlu a donkey’s fetlock by Garcia. Then bottles were thrown, then bottles with petrol-lit rags were thrown. Desai was unfortunate enough to be hit on the head well inside his own lines by a table they were carrying towards the frontier. He was unconscious for two hours and now speaks only in Wolof. Parts of the fence started to give in to the constant battering both sides were using as their chief weapon of fear, holes emerged, crossbows came through, Choudhury was struck straight in the heart and fell dead into the arms of Armstrong who dropped him. This was the point of no return. The barrier between sworn enemies which both claimed as their own, was torn down by men and women of the great continent of Europe who wanted nothing but to destroy everything different on the other side.
Daniel Roy Connelly's pamphlet, Donkey see, Donkey do was published by Eyewear in June 2017. His first collection, Extravagant Stranger: A Memoir, was published by Little Island Press in July 2017. He is a theater director and professor of creative writing, English and theater at John Cabot University and The American University of Rome.
* * *
By Jeff Fleischer
“The guard’s not looking,” the man whispered, and the flash of the woman’s camera momentarily lit the dark gallery.
The sound alerted the docent, who screamed at them in Italian they couldn’t translate. Pointing to the sign, he snatched the camera and pulled out the film, exposing and erasing it.
“It’s just one photo,” the indignant man huffed as the woman rolled her eyes. “I want a manager.”
The painting still sat in its frame while they fought. As it had for more than six centuries, its colors growing less vibrant with yearly accumulations of just one photo after another.
Jeff Fleischer is a Chicago-based author, journalist and editor. His fiction has appeared in more than two dozen publications including the Chicago Tribune's Printers Row Journal, Shenandoah, the Saturday Evening Post and So It Goes by the Kurt Vonnegut Memorial Library. He is also the author of non-fiction books including "Votes of Confidence: A Young Person's Guide to American Elections" (Zest Books, 2016), "Rockin' the Boat: 50 Iconic Revolutionaries" (Zest Books, 2015), and "The Latest Craze: A Short History of Mass Hysterias" (Fall River Press, 2011). He is a veteran journalist published in Mother Jones, the New Republic, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Magazine, MentalFloss, National Geographic Traveler and dozens of other local, national and international publications.
* * *
A Tremendous Interview
By Robert D. Kirvel
Am I qualified? Let me ask you. Is any parent or teacher, any janitor or CEO, ever qualified his first day on the job? No. Or if they say so, it’s false deceit.
People say when you interview like this or write a resume, don’t preach or brag. Show it, don’t tell it. Keep your opinions under the radar, and don’t offend. Well, that’s bunk. Let me tell you something about myself. What a person thinks—of himself, others, life in general—is about choices. Everything’s about choices in life, and I’ve made tremendous choices. Am I qualified? I am so over qualified.
People make a big deal any more about where we live and our exposure to demographics. College grads go around lecturing the heartland how they know more physics than people in the soil, and you have your Californians living in a burrito bubble against hard-working Joes fighting for a chance. But what really shreds conversations between doers and bleeding hearts is their belief, you know, in ethnics and foreign immigration, about supposed happenings like cosmic rays melting the glaciers and monkey evolution and bathroom abortion.
Here are some actual facts. You can hook up with reality right on cable or the Internet. Facts are right there on your phone these days, but more appealing is this thing of magical thinking. What you call tribalism and talking over the web only with people on your side. Magical tribalism is so big these days.
I’ll say it. It’s insane how, right now, you’ve got your know-it-all campus tribe with their socialism newspapers and tofu books on hip replacement. Then there’s the common-sense tribe of Ma and Pa Rustbelters getting stomped on by all those politicians in the cesspool. That’s a true fact: laws and taxes pouring out of the cesspool and drowning the little guy. Does that mean all your local and national politicians are bad guys? No. I’d put it more like brainpower puckered by their own muck.
Now Americans are the world’s greatest subspecies capable of reason—everybody knows that—yet so many don’t apply their fear and hate into critical thinking. Just picture those marcher–moochers who get a stiffy saving some chipmunks but go limp at stockpiling personal ammo against wackos. That’s pretty phallic if you ask me, and not in a good phallic way. Some American ideals going around these days are designed to kill—if not life, then freedom—or at the very least maim human beings and melt the planet. I’ll tell you what will melt the planet: freezing in your bed by not drilling more gasoline and logging trees, that’s what. Equal pay, that’s what, because—just between you and me?—people aren’t equal, and God gave men brains to see their women. Now I love all women whether they’re stacked or ugly as a ditch, but who should I believe? Some lezzy in a white lab coat paid by ivory-tower science journals for their opinions? Some welfare mom or burger-flipping goober cooking up picket signs instead of my lunch?
The environment too. It’s big now, really big. I think about clean water and air all the time. I say we have free rain and trees and carbon dioxide right here in the Land Of The Free the Lord gave us, and that’s clean enough. Right?
Look, if people want to go out there and make protest posters or throw some paint on canvas and call it art, I say go to it, but the Bible gave us trees and rebar. Let’s build some migrant prisons. I’m talking real job security here, with inside housing. Like when the hillbillies built that giant Noah’s Ark thing in Kentucky with the dinosaurs in there for safety and people standing against killer vaccines. Tremendous. I’m a big science and art supporter.
My thoughts on diversity? Sure. Tremendous. It’s important these days to say you have a friend who’s homo. I get it. Or at least a person with minority color or even a homeless schmuck with skid tracks inside his pants or some towelhead guy called Enrique. I know people inside out, is what I’m saying. I wouldn’t want to marry into spastic, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have the greatest respect. Ask anybody.
Your company is facing financial times, right? Regulations are killing business. I’m not bragging when I tell you I can solve the money deal like nobody; hell, I can solve the national debt in a heartbeat. Get rid of the cheaters. I have friends, important scientists. They tell me they can build a super nuke-type thing today a zillion times bigger than before that can split the world apart. Think about it. America sells a shitload of those Bigboys to our allies for super bucks because they have no choice—or else, right?—and we pay off our national debt. Let those moocher scumbags cough up some cash for a change. How’s that for economics? Buy American or else : get it? Goodbye U.S. money problems for all time. Same for your company because I’m a builder.
Sure, you probably know things about this organization here, but one thing you’ll never know. You will never know more than you , but I do. I have intuition. Je suis Charlie. I speak the languages. I carry a big stick, if you catch my drift, and I know a door to hurt. Through that door, I know pain, and through pain, humility. I want the next guy you hire on here to be—let’s just say it—better than you will ever be. I want that person to be me. Like I say, humility.
Bottom line. I know how to make this a beautiful, beautiful place, trust me. I’m the guy whose time has come. I think we understand each other, as long as you don’t have some slut supervisors who don’t know sheepskin from Shinola looking over my shoulder and screwing everything up. So do I have the job now?
Robert D. Kirvel is a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net nominee for fiction. Awards include the Chautauqua 2017 Editor’s Prize, the 2016 Fulton Prize for the Short Story, and a 2015 ArtPrize for creative nonfiction. He has published in the UK, New Zealand, and Germany; in translation and anthologies; and in a score of U.S. literary journals, such as Arts & Letters. A collection of 22 interrelated stories is slated for publication in London during 2018. Links to most of his literary works can be found at twitter.com @Rkirvel.
* * *
By David Pratt
"Jean-Pierre was always there," she said. "I gave him a closet in the house where he could keep his tools. He would arrive every morning on his motorbike and we would sit and have coffee before he began work. He was very slow, but his work was meticulous, and anything he made lasted for ever. He had never traveled more than thirty miles from Bonne Espérance, not even as far as Liège, where my husband went every day. He had never been on a train. But he was very interested, very curious about everything. He would study how a rafter or a piece of furniture was built, and then reproduce it.
“I once saw a magnificent staircase in an old house that was being demolished, and fell in love with it. Eighteenth century, very wide shallow steps that you would just glide down. I bought it from the wreckers, and Jean-Pierre and I went in the evenings and dismantled. it. It was made entirely of oak, with no metal. He would feel along a flat surface and say "There!" and give the wood a tap, and a peg would fly out. I was going to install it in my house. You know how sometimes you see something completely beautiful and it just fills your heart like a physical feeling? That is how I felt about my house. I shall never become attached to any one place again.
"He bought a typewriter and taught himself to type. If I was away for a few days, when I came back I would find that he had helped the children to type a note welcoming me home and telling me what had happened during the week. He was smoking a cigarette the first time I saw him. He had lung cancer. The village doctor said yes, but what can you do? My husband got him to his own doctor and he had all the tests and they decided it was worth operating. They took out a lung, and he survived another ten years.
“He was always there. When my daughter's foot was run over by a lawnmower, he came with me to the hospital. He might not say anything, but he would wait all day, it didn't matter how long, he'd just be with you. He had never seen the sea, so we took him with us once when we went. He was entranced. When I finally made up my mind to leave, he was the only person who knew. I decided to drive over the border to take the plane from Amsterdam, so if my husband came home early he couldn’t have the police stop me. The cat had had kittens two days before. I couldn't take the children away from everything, so I asked him to make something for me to carry the cat and the three kittens. He got a champagne basket and attached two straps to make a lid that closed.
"A year later, after I had settled back in America, after my husband had sent his legal people and taken my children away, I had to go back to conclude all the negotiations over the house, and Jean-Pierre was there. He was in tears. I never saw him again."
David Pratt’s poetry and short fiction have been published in over 100 journals in the United States, Canada, Britain, and Australia, including Antigonish Review, California Quarterly, Chaffin Journal, Dalhousie Review, Indiana Review, Nashwaak Review, Prairie Journal, etc. His op-eds have appeared in national newspapers in Canada and the United States. He is the author of Apprehensions of van Gogh (Hidden Brook Press, 2015), and Nobel Laureates: The Secret of Their Success (Branden Books, 2016).
* * *
No Place Like Home
By Sekai K. Ward
I am ten-years-old when my parents move our family from Midwest America
to the other side of the world. Decades have passed since father left
Zimbabwe. Back then, the landlocked southern African nation was still
Rhodesia and white people were in charge. Father says things are going to
be different now that independence has finally come.
What little I know of Africa comes from the black and white photographs
carefully arranged between the pages of the family album that is held
together with glue and strips of yellowing tape. There is the grandfather I’d
never met. He stands behind the counter of his small tuck shop, shelves
stocked high with matches, cooking oil and powdered milk. Then there is
father’s brother Tatendah, invariably clenching a Chibuku (an African beer
made of malted sorghum and maize) in every photo. He will die too young
from the AIDS epidemic that sweeps through Zimbabwe like a wildfire
scorching everything in its path. In an awkwardly posed photograph, Auntie
Shamiso leans against the trunk of a Blue Gum tree. Her hips are thick, her
thighs heavy and her behind hard and round like a pomegranate. Despite
numerous consultations with the n’angas (witch doctors) who offer muti
(herbal medicine) and blessings, auntie succumbs to AIDS a few years after
Fragments of Ndebele, Shona and English float in the breeze as I step off the
British Airways 747 and onto the tarmac. My little sister slips her brown
hand into the porcelain whiteness of mother’s while my older brother and I
follow a close distance behind. For once we are not bickering, our mutual
wariness causes us to agree to a rare, temporary truce.
“Kwamuri kuenda ndokupi?” the customs official poses the question in Shona
while thumbing through the pages of our American passports. His beautiful
black skin is smooth and dark with undertones of amethyst, like the flesh of
an eggplant when the afternoon sunlight hits it just right. The man’s eyes
are bloodshot and he smells of Nicotine and Lifebuoy soap. His white, short-
sleeved shirt is stained and frayed at the cuffs and collar from too many
washings. He does nothing to disguise his disdain as he stares unsmilingly at
the white woman with a Shona surname and three colored (mixed-race)
children in tow.
“Where is it you are going?” He repeats his original question in English.
Mother tells him we are going to Borrowdale, the elite northern suburb of
Harare where well-appointed homes sit behind tall Durawalls, swimming
pools are filled with turquoise waters and families play tennis on private,
well-maintained courts. Prior to independence Borrowdale was a whites-only
enclave; our multi-racial family will be amongst the first to integrate it as
well as the local schools. The man asks a few more questions before
stamping our passports, waving us through and welcoming us to Zimbabwe.
After being searched for undeclared foreign exchange, pornography, drugs
and music that has been banned as "immoral" by Robert Mugabe’s
government, we head towards luggage claim and the father I haven’t seen in
six months. He isn’t hard to spot in the crowd. Father exudes elegance in his
corporate uniform of dark navy suit, starched white shirt, polka-dot tie and
black oxfords polished to a high shine. He seems happy to see us but it is
always hard to tell with this man who guards his emotions like a child
reluctant to share his toys.
Father deftly maneuvers the Mercedes away from Harare International and
down the long stretch of Airport Road. It is early morning and the city is just
waking. We pass security guards peddling to their posts on rickety bicycles;
barefoot women balancing children on their backs and kindling atop their
heads; and office workers who cram themselves inside overloaded buses and
emergency taxis. Father is rambling on about a function he is attending
tonight at the Meikles Hotel. Mother throws him a sideways glance but says
nothing. I know she wonders why he is going out tonight when we have only
just arrived. She won’t say anything. She never does. I am young but not
too young to understand there is another woman involved. There is always
another woman involved. Father says he is tired of the dinners, cocktail
parties and overseas business trips but this is just talk because the power,
prestige and money is what he lives for. These are the only things
separating him from the poor African boy he used to be, herding cattle in
that dusty, Mashonaland village he once called home. He is a big man now.
He is a Mabenzie.
Sekai K. Ward was born in Nigeria and raised in between Wisconsin and Zimbabwe. She holds a masters degree in clinical social work from the University of Michigan and an MFA from Antioch - Los Angeles. She lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan with her husband Stephen and their son Che.
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2 Scenes by Sarah Anderson
Sarah Anderson is a writer who lives in New Hampshire. Her poems have appeared most recently in The Cafe Review, Off the Coast and December Magazine. She loves photography and sees it as another mode of expressing what she tries to express through her poems. She runs a literary and music venue (The Word Barn) with her husband.
3 Images by Jude Cowan Montague
Jude Cowan Montague worked for Reuters Television archive for ten years. Her album The Leidenfrost Effect (Folkwit Records 2015) re-imagines quirky stories from the Reuters Life! feed. She produces 'The News Agents' on Resonance 104.4 FM. Her most recent book is The Originals (Hesterglock Press, 2017).
Quirk Statements by Seigar
Seigar is an English philologist, a high school teacher, and a curious photographer. He is a fetishist for reflections, saturated colors, details and religious icons. He feels passion for pop culture that shows in his series. He considers himself a traveler and an urban street photographer. His aim as an artist is to tell tales with his camera, to capture moments but trying to give them a new frame and perspective. Travelling is his inspiration. However, he tries to show more than mere postcards from his visits, creating a continuous conceptual line story from his trips. The details and subject matters come to his camera once and once again, almost becoming an obsession.
Dumb as Bricks by Jim Watkins
Jim Watkins is a retired university professor who enjoys creating humorous cartoons and animations. He is also a jazz musician with a diploma in Modern Harmony from Berklee College of music by correspondence course.
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